We talked to the Stanford students who protested Apple over smartphone addiction -- and Apple employees are into their ideas

Stanford Students Against Addictive DevicesCameron Ramos, Sanjay Kannan, and Divyahans Gupta
  • A group of computer science students at Stanford is “protesting” Apple because they say the company could make a few changes that would make its iPhones less addictive.
  • They want Apple to make an “essential mode” for iPhone that only does calls, texts, and photos.
  • These students come from one of Silicon Valley’s most important talent pipelines.
  • This is an instalment of Business Insider’s “Your Brain on Apps” series that investigates how addictive apps can influence behaviour.

The anxiety over phone addiction has finally reached the heart of Silicon Valley: Stanford University’s computer science department.

The department that birthed Google and 40,000 other companies has now given rise to a group of four seniors working to make phones less addictive. They call themselves “Stanford Students Against Addictive Devices,” and they spoke to Business Insider about their campaign.

The four friends – Sanjay Kannan, Evan Sabri Eyuboglu, Divyahans Gupta, and Cameron Ramos, all of whom graduate this spring – are aware that they could end up working for big tech companies like Apple or Google, and that they’re learning the very skills needed to build the systems that many blame for device addiction.

Still, they recognise that many tech products are engineered from the ground-up to be “sticky” and are often tested specifically to maximise the amount of time that people use them. They also see how central smartphones are to their friends and peers in daily life.

“We see every day sort of in our generation the issue of device dependence and device addiction,” Ramos said. “And that feedback loop that really develops that reward pathway that gets people hooked on their phones and the applications that run on them.”

“Especially in social situations we find that like when you’re around the dinner table or when you’re just chilling with your friends,” Kannan said. “People are just always perpetually on their phones and they just won’t participate in the social situation.”

Although the project was initially started to fill a class requirement about ethics in coding, it ended bringing them to stage a protest at one of Silicon Valley’s most iconic sites – 1 Infinite Loop, Apple’s former headquarters in Cupertino, California, which is still an active company office. There, they held up signs with phrases like “Apple holds us captive.”

They also held a protest in downtown Palo Alto, California at the Apple Store.

For its part Apple has faced some scrutiny, notably in the form of a shareholder proposal, over whether it’s doing all it can to fight iPhone addiction. The company said in January that it planned new features for parents, in addition to its current parental controls, to limit the use of iPhones among young people.

“We have new features and enhancements planned for the future, to add functionality and make these tools even more robust,” an Apple representative told Business Insider. “We think deeply about how our products are used and the impact they have on users and the people around them. We take this responsibility very seriously and we are committed to meeting and exceeding our customers’ expectations, especially when it comes to protecting kids.”

Essential mode

Divyahans Gupta Stanford Students Against Addictive DevicesStanford Students Against Addictive DevicesDivyahans Gupta at 1 Infinite Loop.

The group has several interesting ideas about how to combat device dependence but one of the most interesting suggestions they have made is “essential mode.”

Basically, in the proposed essential mode, an iPhone would only be able to do three tasks: calls, texts and photos. Maybe it would display maps, as well.

“Our idea with essential mode was to have Apple give their users the option to use their phone in simpler ways,” Eyuboglu said.

“The idea is that just like alongside aeroplane mode and low-power mode you have an essential mode,” he continued. “So with a flick of a switch on the phone you’d be able to shut down a lot of those distracting bumps on the phone and bring it down just to the essentials, like calls, texts, photos, and say, maps.”

The group also wants Apple to “take phone addiction seriously” and include an app with iPhones that tracks phone usage clearly, and provides additional control over notifications from apps and other services.

In the meantime, the students recommend users turn their notifications off and try using their phone in a grey mode “to minimise dopamine hits.” Indeed, some users have found that making their iPhone screen display only in shades of grey helps them break the cycle of addiction.

Why Apple?

Apple holds us captiveStanford Students Against Addictive DevicesA pamphlet the group handed out at the Palo Alto app store and at 1 Infinite Loop.

You might wonder why they chose to focus on Apple instead of companies like Google or Facebook, which build some of the most popular and addictive apps out there.

“iPhones are our gateway to addictive services (read: Facebook and company), so Apple is uniquely capable of helping us curb our dependence,” the group said in a handout. “Even though Apple’s business model does not rely on device addiction, they fail to take common sense steps to address the issue.”

Basically, what they want from Apple is greater access to data that the iPhone currently keeps locked down – like how often certain apps are used – to open up the possibility of building better digital tools for people to curb their app addiction.

“This isn’t just an Apple issue, but amongst Silicon Valley companies, Apple is the best position to address it,” Gupta told Business Insider.

It turns out, they say, many of the people headed to work at Apple were sympathetic. Some Apple employees even gave them tips on the design of their signs, or when would be the best time to pitch Apple.

“Many of the employees actually missed their light crossing the intersection to talk to us and chat with us. Some employees were in a car and put their hazards on and said that our font was too small on our posters,” Gupta said.

“We just want to open as many lines of communication as possible and take it from there,” Kannan said.

Below is a transcript of our conversation, lightly edited for length and clarity:

Stanford Students Against Addictive DevicesStanford Students Against Addictive Devices

Business Insider: Are you guys friends aside from this organisation, and when did you decide to form Stanford Students Against Addictive Devices?

Cameron Ramos: We’re all friends, we’ve known each other for quite a while and now we’re seniors, about to graduate. We’re all CS majors so we very well could go to work to the companies that were sort of part of this conversation. But as part of our CS degree we need to take a ethics course to learn about the ethical issues in tech – there are so many.

But one of the really important ones that we see every day sort of in our generation is the issue of device dependence and device addiction and that feedback loop that really develops that reward pathway that gets people hooked on their phones and the applications that run on them. So forming this group was really part of that class but it’s become sort of beyond that scope and we’re really excited about taking this further.

BI: Some of us who aren’t on college campuses are wondering, are there are people on their phones all the time, that kind of thing. What do you see that makes you worried?

Sanjay Kannan: Especially in social situations we find that like when you’re around the dinner table or when you’re just chilling with your friends. People are just always perpetually on their phones and they just won’t participate in the social situation. And that’s one of the things that really triggered us to mobilize on this issue.

BI: Are there any thinkers that you that are particularly influential in any of the ideas behind behind your group?

Kannan: We have two statistics in our pamphlet. One of them is that 69 per cent [of adults check their iPhone hourly]. And 50 per cent of teens feel addicted to their iPhones. And so those are the main statistics we stand behind at this point.

Ramos: We did the research – feel free to reach out to us and we can send you some more information on some of the research that we’ve done after the call.

BI: Why did you choose Apple in particular? For your first in-the-real-world event.

Divyahans Gupta: First of all, our intention is to be friendly with Apple. We’re reaching out to them to say, “You know, you guys can help out with this issue.” And this isn’t just an Apple issue, but amongst Silicon Valley companies, Apple is the best position to address it, because as you said, their business model doesn’t depend on addiction. Apple is a leader in the space and so that a lot of other phone manufacturers follow by example, and so we wanted to talk it out first.

BI: Are your parents concerned about your phone usage or do you have professors that have expressed concern?

Ramos: I mean, yeah I think our parents are all probably concerned. One thing that we saw a lot as we engage with people in front of the Apple Store, we talked to a lot of concerned parents actually who talked about it as less of an issue for them but more as an issue for their kids.

There was one woman who said that she notices when she picks up her son from school if he’s walking out of the school with a group of friends and any one of them pulls out their phone they all kind of snap their heads down and they all pull out their phone and it kind of just like spreads immediately to the kids around them. So definitely parents are super concerned about it.

BI: How do you think Saturday at the Palo Alto Apple Store went?

Gupta: I think what we took away the most was actually when we were at the Apple headquarters in Cupertino. We were at an intersection where where many Apple engineers were passing by and after talking to them they really empathized with what we were saying and took our pamphlets and took the time to talk about the issue.

Many of the employees actually missed their light crossing the intersection to talk to us and chat with us. Some employees were in a car and put their hazards on and said that our font was too small on our posters. And so I think that the engagement that we saw at the Apple headquarters was really by far the highlight of our protest so far.

I think what we took away, our most salient point was that when a couple of the employees actually came by and told us that we should come back in September to have the maximum effect because Apple actually has an internal hackathon to discuss default applications, and that we should come back in September to actually make our voice heard and get that app into people’s phones, and so I think that was really the best part I think the best part of the protest so far.

Ramos: The conversation really quickly pivoted from like, “Yeah this is a real issue,” to “How feasible are your three points, like how can we start implementing those things?” And that’s what really was by far the greatest thing.

The employees are really thinking hard about “essential mode” that we’re proposing and how they could make changes in the OS to enable that and then also give developers the data that Siri already uses to tell to suggest apps to use, like they already have the data internally in the OS that knows how much time you spend on each application.

Giving that to third parties or making it available would really let people like us, who are going on to work in tech, the ability to create our own applications to address these issues .

Kannan: I just want to stress the point that app developers right now can’t do this by themselves. Apple needs to expose the functionality for third-party developers to make this happen.

BI: How did you guys come up with “essential mode?”

Stanford Students Against Addictive DevicesStanford Students Against Addictive DevicesApple engineers seemed to take the ideas seriously

Sabri Eyuboglu: Our idea with essential mode was to have Apple give their users the option to use their phone in simpler ways. What we found amongst our friends first was that there are a lot of people who are actually downgrading back to older versions of phones, right? Because they felt like their iPhone and their other smartphones were too distracting.

Also we found that on the internet there’s a lot of people, there’s actually a push, to make simpler versions of smartphones that allow you to limit the functionality and the distractions that are available on them. And so what we thought was, “Well what if the iPhone itself could actually include that simpler functionality, that simpler functioning.”

So the idea again is that just like alongside aeroplane mode and low-power mode you have an essential mode, so with a flick of a switch on the phone you’d be able to shut down a lot of those distracting bumps on the phone and bring it down just to the essentials, like calls, texts photos, and say maps, right? Like if you’re out on a family trip or something.

Ramos: Just like, Apple, they have been pushing to integrate sort of health into the platform. Everyone gets the Health app and they can track exactly how many steps they’re taking how many stairs their climbing, but this kind of another dimension to health that’s coming through and certainly a really important one and we’re kind of almost inspired by the health app to have this kind of app monitoring to see what we’re actually using on the phone, in a kind of similar light.

BI: Captive.ml. That’s a great domain name. How did you guys land on that one?

Kannan: Overall, we want to be friendly, like, we want to say “Apple you can help out.” But I think there is also a little bit of a provocative element to this. We want people to like be captured by this and we want them to like take notice of this and I think “Captive” is the kind of word that like just captures you just enough without making it too antagonistic, because we really want to be friendly.

Eyuboglu: And also I think one of the reasons why we went with the word, the word “captive” was because we feel, because the iPhone is a gateway to all these services we felt that Apple in a way has a captive audience, right? And I think once you have a captive audience, you have a responsibility your responsibility to serve that captive audience in the right way.

Ramos: I’m not sure if you’re aware of this, but the way that kind of applications are designed at sort of companies like they won’t roll out a new feature unless they can show conclusively through A/B testing that the application is actually creating more like pull and people are spending more time on their phones engaging with these products. So Apple doesn’t have that. To our knowledge, they do not.

So you know once they sell a phone, their kind of business is pretty much complete there so we really, that’s the real driver behind why we think they’re uniquely positioned to solve the issue.

BI: Their business model is for them to sell you something that’s nice, not that every minute you’re using Google or Facebook or whatever.

Eyuboglu: Exactly. We think they’d be making a better product, by including these features.

Stanford Students Against Addictive DevicesThe team meets on Stanford’s campus.

BI: You’re in your senior year, you got a couple of months left, where do you see your group going?

Kannan: I think I think we weren’t sure where we were going to take it until we did these protests. But I think now that we’ve done this we see that a lot of people are really very excited about this issue and it’s something that a lot of people both young and old alike feel strongly about this.

So we’re going to we’re going to listen to what people have to say about what we did. We’re going to try to contact Apple and see what they think. We just want to open as many lines of communication as possible and take it from there.

BI: Do you think you’ll do another out in the world protest kind of thing?

Eyuboglu: Totally. I think that one of the greatest things about this past weekend was engaging with people and actually talking face to face about the issue and seeing what people’s concerns were and what people were willing to do.

BI: I noticed to you linked to the app Moment. Is that an app you recommend?

Gupta: We we have tried out the app Moment but as Sabri said, we really want able to track our usage over time. We think Apple, it’s in their best interest to provide as much functionality as possible and not rely on outside developers like Moment because Apple already has all this data.

Eyuboglu: Also, with Moment, in order to get the functionality you actually have to grant Moment access to your GPS location, which I think for many people is a no-go, and so we want to basically just make access to this kind of an app more ubiquitous.

BI: Computer science majors from Stanford are obviously in high demand. Are you guys going into tech? Or are you guys going to start your own startup or do you not know?

Kannan: I think we’re all still working out our plans for after graduation. But I think this kind of thing is what we need to go out into the world of tech with an ethical footing. So, that’s why we’re into this.

BI: Do you do you personally feel that you want to try to use your phones less?

Ramos: I mean certainly this has kind of encouraged me to limit my usage of certain apps. I don’t have the Facebook app any more on my phone and I’m using grayscale most of the time so I think we’re all taking it seriously ourselves as well.

BI: When did you guys get your first smartphones?

Gupta: I can’t speak for everyone else, but personally I got mine when I started college.

Eyuboglu: Yeah, for me it was late late high school.

Kannan: For me it was actually pretty early, like late middle school.

Ramos: Cameron here, I think I got mine in 10th grade.

BI: So you guys were in high school and people had, like, iPhones and Snapchat?

The group: Totally. Yeah definitely.

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