Former Apple Designer Regrets Creating a World Where Kids Stare at Screens

Tony Fadell makes a case for ethical tech design based on his past mistakes and current dad issues

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tony fadell

The man who helped bring the iPhone to the world regrets that children are literally addicted to screens he helped proliferate. Tony Fadell, CEO of Nest and one-time Vice President of Apple during the heady years of the iPod and its cellular cousin, told a London Design Museum audience that he wakes up “in a cold sweat” worried about what he helped unleash on the world. Central to his concerns? Children.

During the Fast Company-sponsored talk, Fadell was very clear about how fatherhood had affected his perspective on the proliferation of mobile screens. While acknowledging that addiction had been designed into the iDevices, he offered anecdotal evidence of the childhood tech-jones from his personal life. Fadell explained to the London audience that when taking devices away from his own kids, “They literally feel like you’re tearing a piece of their person away from them—they get emotional about it, very emotional. They go through withdrawal for two to three days.”

The problem, according to Fadell, is that mobile technology and the vast flow of information associated with it was designed to be a singular experience for a user. That idea doesn’t particularly gel with the collectivist necessities of a family where isolation brings nothing but trouble. The problem is that when the mobile revolution was being built, many of the architects weren’t thinking of how it would affect families, their own or otherwise.

But according to Fadell, that might be changing. The aggressively young, white, male populace of Silicon Valley is slowly beginning to age and become a bit more diverse. This trend has started challenging many of tech’s long-held values. That’s particularly true when CEOs like Fadell begin seeing how their children interact with their creations. As an example, Fadell referenced the emergence of YouTube Kids which is safe space, separated from the Wild West, anything goes shitshow that typified the video platforms’ earliest incarnation.

But Fadell believes the tech community needs a fix that’s a touch stronger than the occasional 2 a.m. cold-sweat realization. During his talk, he pitched a “Hippocratic oath” for designers that would act as a barrier between tech’s best ideas and their worst unintended consequences. It’s a call for a more thoughtful tech design that considers the implications long after unboxing.

It’s too late now for kids and screens, but maybe it could curb future generation’s screen addiction before it has a chance to take root.

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