The iPhone may have revolutionized telecommunications, but it has also quickly become the most effective tool in human history to mollify a fussy toddler — to the delight of many parents. But just as adults have a hard time putting down their own iPhones, parents, psychologists and others who observe children are starting to notice...
The bedroom door opened and a light went on, signaling an end to nap time. The toddler, tousle-haired and sleepy-eyed, clambered to a wobbly stand in his crib. He smiled, reached out to his father, and uttered what is fast becoming the cry of his generation: “iPhone!”
The iPhone has revolutionized telecommunications. It has also become the most effective tool in human history to mollify a fussy toddler, much to the delight of parents reveling in their newfound freedom to have a conversation in a restaurant or roam the supermarket aisles in peace. But just as adults have a hard time putting down their iPhones, so the device is now the Toy of Choice — akin to a treasured stuffed animal — for many 1-, 2- and 3-year-olds. It’s a phenomenon that is attracting the attention and concern of some childhood development specialists.
Natasha Sykes, a mother of two in Atlanta, remembers the first time her daughter, Kelsey, now 3 ½ but then barely 2 years old, held her husband’s iPhone. “She pressed the button and it lit up. I just remember her eyes. It was like ‘Whoa!’ “
The parents were charmed by their daughter’s fascination. But then, said Sykes (herself a BlackBerry user), “She got serious about the phone.”
Most Read Life Stories
- This year’s Thanksgiving feast will wallop the wallet
- How Seattle-area businesses are dealing with King County's new 'show proof of COVID vaccine or test' rule
- UW paleontologists dug up 4 dinosaurs in Montana this summer, including a possible 'Chicken from Hell'
- Beef is a problem. This Seattle steakhouse wants to be part of the solution.
- COVID-19 etiquette: How to handle awkward vaccine, wedding and family situations
Kelsey would ask for it. Then she’d cry for it. “It was like she’d always want the phone,” Sykes said. After a six-hour search one day, she and her husband found the iPhone tucked away under Kelsey’s bed. They laughed. But they also felt vague concern. Kelsey, and her 2-year-old brother, Chase, have blocks, Legos, bouncing balls, toy cars and books galore. (“They love books,” Sykes said.) But nothing compares to the iPhone.
“If they know they have the option of the phone or toys, it will be the phone,” Sykes said
Brady Hotz, who will be 2 at the end of this month, was having a hard time getting out the door of his family’s home near Chicago the other day. He’d woken up late — 6:45 instead of 6:15. His mother, Kellie Hotz, was in a rush. She got him dressed, gave him milk and cereal, and announced, “We’re ready to go.”
Brady, not budging from his position near the couch, dug in. “Mickey!” he said plaintively. “Mickey!” (Translation: I’m not going anywhere till I get to watch “Mickey Mouse Clubhouse” on TV.)
Hotz, a veteran of such standoffs, switched instantly to what she called her “guaranteed success tool.”
“What about Mickey on the phone?” she suggested.
That’s all it took. Mother swept up the now entirely cooperative toddler, cued up the show (via YouTube) on her little iPhone screen, and strapped him into her car, where he sang happily along with the video for the 15-minute ride to day care.
Then trouble began again. Brady wanted to stay in his seat with the iPhone. Finally he put it in his coat pocket and went inside — where Hotz was able to surreptitiously reclaim her gizmo and leave for work. But it’s not always that easy. “Sometimes I’ll need it because someone is calling, and he is not at all willing to give it up,” she said.
Apple, the iPhone’s designer and manufacturer, has built its success on machines so simple and intuitive that even technologically befuddled adults can figure out how to work them, so it makes sense that sophisticated children would follow. The most recent model is 4.5 inches tall, 2.31 inches wide and weighs 4.8 ounces: sleek, but not too small for those with developing motor skills. Tap a picture on the screen and something happens. What could be more fun?
The sleepy-eyed toddler who called for the iPhone from his crib is one of hundreds of iPhone-loving tykes starring in videos posted throughout the Internet, usually narrated by parents expressing proud wonderment at their offspring’s ability to slide chubby fingers across the gadget’s screen and pull up photographs and apps of their choice.
Many iPhone apps on the market are aimed directly at preschoolers, many of them labeled “educational,” such as Toddler Teasers: Shapes, which asks the child to tap a circle or square or triangle; and Pocket Zoo, which streams live video of animals at zoos around the world. There are “flash cards” aimed at teaching children to read and spell, and a “Wheels on the Bus” app that sings the popular song in multiple languages. Then there’s the new iGo Potty app (sponsored by Kimberly-Clark, maker of Huggies training pants), with automated phone calls reminding toddlers that it’s time to “go.”
Along with fears about dropping and damage, however, many parents sharing iPhones with their young ones feel nagging guilt. They wonder whether it is indeed an educational tool, or a passive amusement like television. The American Academy of Pediatrics has long advised parents not to let their children watch any TV until they are past their second birthday.
Dr. Gwenn Schurgin O’Keeffe, a pediatrician who is a member of the academy’s council of communications and media, said the group is continually reassessing its guidelines to address new forms of “screen time.”
“We always try to throw in the latest technology, but the cellphone industry is becoming so complex that we always come back to the table and wonder should we have a specific guideline for cellphones,” she said. But, she added, “At the moment, we seem to feel it’s the same as TV.”
Jill Mikols Etesse, a mother of two daughters, aged 3 and 8, outside of Washington, D.C., believes her younger daughter is further along in vocabulary, reading and spelling than her older daughter was at the same age, and she attributes this progress to the iPhone and iPad. The 3-year-old has learned to spell compound words like “starlight and fireworks” through an app called Montessori Crossword, her mother said. “She uses words that I don’t use, so I know it isn’t coming from me,” Etesse said. “She says ‘That’s peculiar.’ I don’t use the term peculiar.”
But Jane M. Healy, an educational psychologist in Vail, Colo., said: “Any parent who thinks a spelling program is educational for that age is missing the whole idea of how the preschool brain grows. What children need at that age is whole body movement, the manipulation of lots of objects and not some opaque technology. You’re not learning to read by lining up the letters in the word ‘cat.’ You’re learning to read by understanding language, by listening. Here’s the parent busily doing something and the kid is playing with the electronic device. Where is the language? There is none.”
Despite Etesse’s generally positive experience, she and her husband decided to set limits when their two daughters spent six hours straight staring at the iPhone during a car trip. Now they allow each child no more than one hour a day of screen time. (That means the iPhone and the iPad; neither girl is interested in TV, she said.)
Tovah P. Klein, the director of Columbia University’s Barnard College Center for Toddler Development (where signs forbid the use of cellphones and other wireless devices) worries that fixation on the iPhone screen every time a child is out and about with parents will limit the child’s ability to experience the wider world. “Children at this age are so curious and they’re observing everything,” she said. “If you’re engrossed in this screen you’re not seeing or observing or taking it in.” (Though some, like Renee Giroux-Nix of Cedar Park, Texas, a suburb of Austin, applaud the iPhone’s photo function. She said her 3-year-old, Bella, took a series of photos during a shoe-shopping trip, focusing on her mother’s feet and legs. )
As with TV in earlier generations, the world is increasingly divided into those parents who do allow iPhone use and those who don’t. A recent post on UrbanBaby.com, a popular and often contentious parents’ website, asked if anyone had found that their child was more interested in playing with their iPhone than with “real toys.” The Don’t mothers pounced:
“We don’t let our toddler touch our iPhones … it takes away from creative play.”
“Please … just say no. It is not too hard to distract a toddler with, say … a book.”
Kathy Hirsh-Pasek, a psychology professor at Temple University who specializes in early language development, sides with the Don’ts. Research shows that children learn best through active engagement that helps them adapt, she said, and interacting with a screen doesn’t qualify.
Still, Hirsh-Pasek, struck on a recent visit to New York City by how many parents were handing over their iPhones to their little children in the subway, said she understands the impulse. “This is a magical phone,” she said. “I must admit I’m addicted to this phone.”