Apple's head of design says some people 'misuse' iPhones -- and it reveals a growing problem for Apple

Jony IveGettyApple Chief Design Officer Jony Ive said that constant use of an iPhone is ‘misuse.’
  • Apple’s two most senior executives have answered questions about people overusing smartphones by suggesting they get an Apple Watch. 
  • Studies show that college students who don’t bring their smartphone to class score a full grade higher. 
  • The WSJ, FT, and Guardian have all recently published long stories about how smartphones can be addictive.
  • Smartphone overuse is a growing PR problem for Apple, one they don’t have a strong answer for yet. 

NEW YORK — Jony Ive, Apple’s chief design officer, is clearly proud of his role in the invention of the iPhone, the device that spurred the smartphone boom, created multiple billion-dollar industries, and changed the world. 

But he admits that too much of a good thing can be bad. 

He pointed to “constant use” of an iPhone as one example of iPhone misuse during a public talk at the New Yorker TechFest on Friday, after interviewer David Remnick pressed him about if he ever felt ambivalent about inventing the iPhone. 

Does Ive check his email and texts constantly, like many of us feel like we have to on our iPhones? 

“With my new [Apple] Watch, I tend to not,” he said. 

His solution to the ever-increasing problem of device overstimulation — get another device made by Apple — directly echoes how Apple CEO Tim Cook handled a similar question asked by Fortune, which asked what he thought about the fact that iPhones could be a tool of “bad social behaviour, like distractedness and children who stare for too long into a screen?” 

“Our whole premise is to infuse our products with humanity,” Cook said, before seguing directly into a sales pitch: “So if you think about what the Watch does … it allows you to have a curated level of connection without being absorbed in it.”

To me, Cook and Ive’s answers are distinctly unsatisfactory 

To me, Cook and Ive’s answers are distinctly unsatisfactory — and Cook’s is unusually unclear for him and jargon-heavy.

While neither executive is denying that there’s a growing distraction problem created by smartphones, which Apple inspired, neither executive wants to really dwell on the issue. 

The solution to a problem created by an Apple product should not be another Apple product — one that, in my experience testing an Apple Watch over the past three weeks, actually has contributed to my level of device distraction. (Apple Watch: Buzz. You’ve hit your move goal! Buzz. You’ve received a text message! Buzz. Here’s a headline: Trump White House to repeal…)

Starting to become obvious

Tim Cook and Jony IveGettyApple CEO Tim Cook and Ive look down on an iPhone X.

The negative externalities associated with how addictive and entertaining smartphones are is starting to become obvious. If you live in a city, for example, you’re probably used to seeing “smartphone neck” — people buried in their iPhones on the subway and on the footpath.

The problem is clear to parents who sit down to dinner with their kids only to have them buried in Snapchat and “Clash Royale” the entire time.

It’s clear to iPhone users who turn like Pavlov’s dog any time they hear the iPhone notification sound, even when it comes from someone else’s phone. 

Eventually, Apple is going to have to come up with a clear and coherent answer to questions about iPhone overuse. It’s going to be asked more and more of Apple executives at every public occasion.

Apple is fortunate right now, in that it’s not facing the same level of scrutiny around regulation and fake news issues that its Silicon Valley neighbour Google and Facebook are. Apple is good at privacy and security, and it doesn’t sell many ads at all. 

But perhaps smartphone addiction is the big public-relations problem starting to appear on Apple’s horizon: What can it do about the fact that its products are so good that its customers want to use them all the time? 

Over half of iPhone owners can’t imagine life without it

There’s a lot of data about the increasing importance of a smartphone in the modern world — in one 2015 Gallup survey, 52% of iPhone owners agreed that they “can’t imagine life without my smartphone,” and 42% of smartphone owners would say that they would feel anxiety if they didn’t have their phone for a day. 

That stat was highlighted as part of a recent op-ed in the Wall Street Journal by Nicholas Carr, which claimed that smartphones “hijack” people’s minds. 

An incomplete survey of study findings cited by Nicholas Carr: 

  • When someone’s phone beeps or buzzes during a task, their work gets sloppier.
  • When a smartphone rings but it can’t be picked up, people’s blood pressure spikes and their pulse quickens. 
  • When researchers left subjects’ phones in plain view, they did significantly worse on tests. 
  • A University of Chicago researcher says that the “integration of smartphones into daily life” appears to cause a “brain drain. 
  • A University of Arkansas study found that students who didn’t bring their phones to class scored a full letter-grade higher on a test. 

Carr concludes: 

“Phone makers like Apple and Samsung and app writers like Facebook and Google design their products to consume as much of our attention as possible during every one of our waking hours, and we thank them by buying millions of the gadgets and downloading billions of the apps every year.”

“As strange as it might seem, people’s knowledge and understanding may actually dwindle as gadgets grant them easier access to online data stores”

The essay was widely praised by figures who see their lives in the studies cited, including Ariana Huffington, who has been loudly making the claim that smartphones are hurting our ability to sleep. 

‘Me and my phone, we are best friends, I’m closer to my phone than family’

Child with an iphone 6Cole Bennetts/Getty ImagesLevi aged 10, shows of the new iPhone 6s Plus in rose gold as crowds wait in anticipation for the release of the iPhone 6s and 6s Plus at Apple Store on September 25, 2015 in Sydney, Australia

The fact that smartphones have downsides is clear from anecdotal evidence, as well. 

One visceral example of these growing negative externalities is Kylie and Kushana, British 13-year-olds who were recently profiled as part of a Financial Times feature about kids and smartphones

“Me and my phone, we are best friends, I’m closer to my phone than family. It’s the first thing I look at in the morning, and the last thing at night,” Kushana told the Financial Times. 

Kylie also said she feels odd without her iPhone.

“To be honest, I isolate myself when I’m at home. I’m always on my phone when I’m [there]. It’s not always because I’m talking to someone, I just don’t feel right without it,” Kylie told the newspaper. “So I hang out on the couch with my phone and my headphones. I don’t mind talking to real people as long as I have my phone next to me.” 

At one school in London, most students have an iPad by the time they’re eight years old, and get their first smartphone when they become teenagers, the Financial Times reported, which is when “addictive attachment” starts. 

Of course, smartphones aren’t all bad — the FT reporting highlighted how the internet on a phone can help ostracized kids find a community across the world. 

But there is a lot of evidence that the benefits of having the internet in your pocket come with significant downsides, and someone is going to have to pay for the reduction in attention. 

Some ex-Silicon Valley designers put the blame on apps, like Justin Rosenstein, who invented the “like” button, and who asked his assistant to set up his iPhone to prevent him from downloading apps, according to a fantastic look at the issues in The Guardian. It’s the app makers that are optimising feedback loops to get their users liking or retweeting more. 

But it is increasingly appearing like a lot of people will put the blame on Apple as well — it’s part of the price to pay for having invented the smartphone and its huge media machine that puts iPhones on billboards and commercials around the world. 

One engineer listed on Apple’s patent for the push-notification, who no longer works at Apple, shrugged off responsibility in an interview with The Guardian, saying his invention is not “inherently good or bad” and that it’s a “larger discussion for society.” 

That’s fair — as Ive said last Friday, any tool can be misused, especially one as powerful as an iPhone. But as the larger discussion for society about smartphones and addiction takes place, eyes are going to be on Apple for answers and guidance. 

Apple needs a better response than “get an Apple Watch.”

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