Toddlers latch onto iPhones

The bedroom door opened and a light went on, signalling 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 1/2 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.”

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.

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 11.43 centimetres tall, 5.87 centimetres wide and weighs 136 grams: 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 labelled “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.

Jill Mikols Etesse, a mother of two daughters, aged 3 and 8, outside of Washington, 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, Colorado, 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.”

Tovah P. Klein, the director of Columbia University’s Barnard College Center for Toddler Development (where signs forbid the use of cell phones 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.”

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.”