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Globe editorial: Turn off the smartphones, turn on the science

Good news for Luddites: Worrying about smartphones isn't just for you anymore.

No, the burgeoning concern about the zombie army of adults and children glued to their Androids has been taken up by an unlikely cohort: Silicon Valley tech geeks.

This past year, more and more of them stood up to say, We designed these devices and their apps to be addictive, and we succeeded too well. Smartphones are making it harder to focus and think clearly; they are compelling us to neglect our loved ones; and kids who use them for social-media binges appear more prone to anxiety and depression. As The Globe reported last weekend, their argument has a growing body of research to back it up.

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The chorus of whistleblowers includes former executives and product managers from Apple, Facebook and Google. And last week came word that two major Apple shareholders want the company to make iPhones less addictive for kids.

Jana Partners LLC, an activist investor, and the California State Teachers' Retirement System, which together own about $2-billion of Apple stock, published an open letter urging the smartphone behemoth to convene and co-operate with an expert panel on how their marquee product is affecting children. They also suggest allowing for more parental controls over the apps that kids use and the length of time they spend on their devices.

Bully to the investors for holding their firm to account. What they and their fellow Jeremiahs in the tech world are signalling, though, is that it's time for someone outside of the industry to take a well-funded, authoritative look at our relationship to smartphones. Even if Apple listens to the needling of these minority shareholders, any study done under its aegis would invite doubt. What the smartphone issue needs is research that can't be ignored.

This is where government comes in. Ottawa should convene a panel of the kind Jana and the California teachers are trying to elicit from Apple. It could draw top academics from relevant fields – neuroscience, sociology, psychology, public health – and ask them to gather and assess all the best research on how smartphones are affecting our mental health. If there are gaps in the research to date – and since smartphones are such a new technology, there surely are – the academics could recommend areas for further study, which the feds could agree to fund.

There's a precedent for these things. The famous 1964 U.S. Surgeon General's report brought together years of relatively low-key research on the health effects of smoking into a rigorous, devastating case against cigarettes, stamped with the authority of the American government. Canada should produce a Surgeon General's report on smartphones.

There are hurdles to this approach. Governments, especially of mid-size countries like Canada, don't want to seem anti-tech while they compete to lure Amazon and Google into their big cities and reap the fruits of Silicon Valley's Trump-era brain drain.

Then there's the tricky nature of smartphones themselves. What the devices dole out excessively is not a substance like salt or tar but information, in all its varieties. The worst apparent effects of this information overload are on mental health, which still isn't taken as seriously as physical illness in the public mind, and on even more nebulous realms of cognition like attention span.

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France may offer a way forward here. In the 1880s, when garish posters blanketed Paris, lawmakers regulated the new swarm of ads in the name of mental "hygiene," the Columbia University law professor Tim Wu writes in his recent book, The Attention Merchants.

France is again acting aggressively to protect the mental well-being of its citizens, passing a law allowing employees of large firms to ignore e-mail after work hours, and announcing a plan to ban the use of smartphones on the grounds of elementary and middle schools this fall.

We may eventually decide as a society that smartphones and their apps need to be regulated, much like France has done. In the meantime, Ottawa should strike a body of scientists to investigate this urgent public-health matter.

Sean Parker, the former president of Facebook, acknowledged last fall that the site was designed to chemically hook users. "God only knows what it's doing to our children's brains," he said.

Let's find out for ourselves.

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