Image by Lyn Millett via Flickr
The kids and smart phones dilemma is a constant and ongoing discussion in certain segments of the parenting universe. I find it a fascinating discussion as a technophile, as someone who has been working in technology policy and social implications of technology issues for a long time, and as a parent. Our two-year-old plays with our iPhones from time to time. We have a set of toddler apps we've downloaded, he likes to watch baseball videos, and he likes to look at pictures and videos of himself. Right now, in contrast to a few weeks ago, he only asks to play with it every few days, but I'm sure, as with everything else, his interest in it will wax and wane.
So I find discussions of how, when, and how much to let your kids use electronic gadgets to be interesting. As with any parenting issue, people on all sides of the question can be found. Parenting Magazine recently ran a piece supposedly on the "Pros and Cons of Kids Playing with Phone Apps." Unfortunately, I thought the piece was not particularly insightful. Let's break it down - I'll paraphrase their 'pros' and 'cons' and respond to them. For the most part, there's not much that's particularly distinctive about smart phones as opposed to other toys or gadgets.
- They suggest that giving your kid your kid the phone will keep them occupied for awhile. True, but this not really unique to phones. It is true that most of the time you'll have your phone with you whereas you might not always have a bag full of Kid Distractions everywhere you go. (I must confess, though, that for times we expect our son will need distraction, like a long doctor appointment, we take both our iPhones and an iPodTouch.)
- But, on the negative side, they say it can be hard to get it back if a call comes in. Well, it can be hard to take any engaging toy away from a kid (also, see iPodTouch solution above). And, really, people take calls on these things? I kid, I kid! (Although I loathe talking on the phone and avoid it as much as possible.)
- On the pro side, they say some of the apps are good - as good as their 'regular toy' equivalents. True. And some are even better!
- A con: kids might become attached to virtual world play. I suppose, but 1) it's probably still better than hours of television per day and 2) that's a time management parenting issue, not an issue with the smart phone.
- They make the point that there are some good apps out there for developing minds. True! Well, we think so. Research on what's actually good for kids' brains when it comes to screentime is scant. And, remember the Baby Einstein brouhaha.
- They urge, though, to be wary of things that say they're "educational" as they might not be. True, but what's that got to do with phones? That applies everywhere.
- On the positive side again, they note that most apps are cheap or free. True! (But the phone is expensive!)
- And then, finally, a caution that your phone has data on it and to be careful "handing over a machine with all your personal data, your connection to the world." Now, this may actually be something specific to the phones. On the one hand, 2 and 3 year olds are unlikely to do something malicious or deliberately screwy with your data. But mistakes can happen - our son has deleted photos by accident (we try to sync regularly) and it would be very easy for him to accidentally email someone in my address book, although as far as I know that hasn't happened. There are tools that can help - iPhones, for instance, can be put into airplane mode (disconnected from the network). But that means he can't get to his beloved YouTube videos. Our solution is to keep a reasonably close eye on which apps he's messing around with. As he gets older--he's already much more sophisticated with it than I would have ever predicted--I see this becoming more of a problem. And I suspect the time when we decommission an iPodTouch (and remove all sensitive data and email accounts) and bequeath it to him will be sooner than I'd originally expected.
Anyway, we subscribe to Parenting Magazine and, to be fair, there's nothing really wrong with this article. I just don't think that the smart phones with apps are all that much different from other electronic gizmos. There are interesting questions about learning, screentime, fine motor skills, and so on, of course. I think the most interesting thing to me about smart phones and app ecosystems is that there is such a huge variety of possible games and activities. The iPad opens up that space even further.
We have barely scratched the surface with the toddler apps we've found for two-year-old (I entertained myself a great deal the other day by downloading "iGo Potty" - a free app from Huggies which I found because I follow @pullupsbigkid on Twitter - haven't tried it for its intended purpose yet), but I predict there will be some amazing apps and games and tools and social possibilities, especially for older kids, that will far outweigh any reservations about the fact that they're spending time with a "gadget." The harder questions will be about which apps to let them have and how much supervision to employ, just as with Internet-connected computers. But for the toddler set, in our experience it's really just another shiny toy.