Steve Jobs unveils the iPad. Photo by Mike Lee via Flickr.
Apple founder Steve Jobs didn't let his kids use the iPad, or really any product their dad invented, according to a 2014 report from Nick Bilton in The New York Times.
haven't used it," Jobs told Bilton. "We limit how much technology our
kids use at home." Every night, the family had a phone-free dinner
together, according to Walter Isaacson, author of the definitive biography Steve Jobs. "The kids did not seem addicted at all to devices," Isaacson told Bilton.
found Jobs’s choices startling—and for good reason. What does it say
about the safety of a product if its creator forbids his own kids from
using it? But the tech billionaire’s choices weren’t as unusual as they
might seem. From tobacco to food manufacturing to social media,
executives and insiders are subtly sounding the alarm in actions, if not
in words. Their behaviors provide insight not just into the risks of
certain consumer products to children, but to adults, too.
Fast food and junk food executives don't eat like everyone else. Photo from Deposit Photos.
From the moment the Surgeon General's 1964 report
on the harmful effects of carcinogens in cigarettes was published,
tobacco executives have engaged in a decades-long campaign of
misinformation and obfuscation. Though they continue selling their
products—wrapped in government-regulated warning packages—news reports
have shown that many executives have stamped out cigarette smoke in
their own lives.
As of 2014, Reynolds American, which makes Camel cigarettes, no longer lets employees smoke in the office. The company's former CEO, Susan Cameron, stopped smoking "conventional cigarettes" more than 15 years ago, according to Fortune magazine, and turned to electronic cigarettes, which some believe are a healthier, though no less addictive, alternative.
And David Crow, then the managing director of tobacco company BAT Australia, regularly warns his children to avoid the very products he makes, according to a 2011 report in The Sydney Morning Herald.
"It's bad for you. It says it on the pack," Crow said. "I've got a
13-year-old, an 11-year-old and a seven-year-old and if they smoke I
tell them absolutely, categorically, 'Do not smoke'."
In his 2013 book Salt Sugar Fat,
author Michael Moss documented the ways in which food manufacturers
hacked our taste buds and designed snacks, sodas, and other grub that
keep us "hooked." Publicly, these companies have broadcast their efforts
as a boon to convenience, satisfaction, and savings—despite mounting
health concerns. But privately, Moss revealed, many junk food executives
and their families avoided their own products, acutely aware of the
dangers wrapped in brightly-colored plastics.
the grandchildren of Bob Drane, the creator the Lunchables. One of
Drane's adult children allows his own kids to eat Lunchables, according
to Moss’s reports. But Dran's daughter, Monica, doesn’t let her children
anywhere near the stuff, which she calls “junky” and “awful.” “They
know they exist and they know Grandpa Bob invented them,” she said. “But
we eat very healthfully.”
argues that benefits of the product outweighed the health problems
associated Lunchables. While the bologna tray, Moss reports, somehow
contains 13 teaspoons of sugar and two-thirds of the daily recommended
sodium intake for children, the snacks save parents time. “I wish that
the nutritional profile of the thing could have been better,” Drane told
Moss, “but I don’t view the entire project as anything but a positive
contribution to people’s lives.” Still, Drane has come to believe that
his industry—if not the Lunchables product specifically—should
acknowledge its accountability for issues like childhood obesity, one of
several causes he’s taken up as a volunteer.
the emphasis isn’t on children alone. When Moss grabbed a meal with
"food industry legend" Howard Moskowitz, who led the effort to develop
Cherry Vanilla Dr Pepper, Moss ordered a few cans of soda for the table,
and asked its creator to have a sip. “I’m not a soda drinker,”
Moskowitz said. “It’s not good for your teeth.” With some goading from
Moss, Moskowitz eventually takes a pained sip, calling the drink
“terrible” and “overwhelming.”
is a class issue at work in processed foods, in which the inventors and
company executives don't generally partake in their own creations,"
Moss concluded. Some executives have spoken up about these problems,
with mixed results. In 2003, for example, Kraft rolled out nutritional
labels that featured "whole package" data,
providing consumers with a modicum more insight into what the CEOs
already knew: how the sausage gets made. "Most of these executives
[agitating for more transparency or healthier products] ended up
quitting in frustration or getting fired for their unconventional
views," according to the Washington Post.
Managing screen time is gaining traction in Silicon Valley. Photo from Deposit Photos.
In Silicon Valley, it's almost impossible to avoid your own inventions. Software developers abide by the maxim of "dogfooding",
which states that to refine your product, you have to use it (or "eat
your own dog food"). But that doesn't mean they don't worry about
themselves—and their children. In fact, industry insiders often use junk
food as a metaphor for digital products. "It's like if you ate potato
chips all day long," Mike McCue, the founder of Flipboard, said of
social media during a 2017 appearance on the Recode Decode
podcast. "You have to have a balanced information diet. There's nothing
wrong with looking at Facebook. If that's all you do then you're just
going to be a product of that."
insiders seem to harbor similar concerns. Bilton, who reported that the
Jobs family was low-tech, interviewed at least six other software-savvy
families for his 2014 piece. One sources said he’d “seen the dangers of
technology firsthand,” from bullying to tech addiction, and wanted to
protect his children from those experiences.
2017, Microsoft founder Bill Gates revealed he had both age and
habit-related rules for his three children. "We don't have cellphones at
the table when we are having a meal," he told The Mirror,,
a British newspaper. "[W]e didn't give our kids [cell phones] until
they were 14 and they complained other kids got them earlier." The rules
about how long before bed phones had to be off probably wasn't popular
the reasonings followed a similar pattern of logic: smartphones and
related devices were useful for “homework and staying in touch with
friends,” Gates said, but had the potential for “excess.”
Gates kids may not have gotten cell phones until they were 14, but the
average American gets their first phone at age 10. Today, 45 percent of
teens say they are "online on a near-constant basis," according to a 2018 analysis by the Pew Research Institute. This, despite the fact that 45 percent of teens see social media neither good or bad and 24 percent see it as mostly negative.
And the statistics are just as bleak for adults. The average American spends 5 hours a day on their phone. That translates, according to one analysis, to touching, swiping, and tapping our phones 2,000 times between getting up and going back to sleep. Like a Lays potato chip, you can't "like" just once.
While many adults need smart phones for work and other essential tasks,
former Google employee Tristan Harris and his colleagues at the Center for Humane Technology modify their own behaviors by graying out their screens and turning off all (or all non-essential) notifications.
The average American gets their first cell phone at age 10. Photo from Deposit Photos.
papers, investigative journalism, court cases, and government inquiries
are all sources of important consumer information, from the safety of
the food we eat and the beverages we drink to the technology we keep
closest to us, always in our hand, or on the nightstand. But it’s clear
that the actions of CEOs are an important bellwether—a sign of problems
consumers may not even know they’re facing.
Plenty of executives believe wholeheartedly in products that are clearly dangerous or, at best, a waste of money (think supplements, activated charcoal, or fad diets).
But as history shows, many more executives use their insider knowledge
to make different personal choices than the ones they promote to the
public. Like the canaries in the coal mines of their own creation, when
the CEO squawks, we should listen.