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UPDATED: I Gave My 3 Year Old an iPhone: Have I Created a Monster?

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A few months back, my wife went on a girls’ weekend trip from East Coast to West, gone for a total of five days. I survived my first long stretch with our three year old daughter alone, but it wasn’t easy. At 43, I came to parenthood late in life, and I have to admit being a father is one of the hardest things I’ve ever done. During my wife’s much-needed and deserved vacation, I perhaps relied a bit too heavily on the TV for entertainment and babysitting. But the TV gave me the few minutes throughout each day that I needed to get things done or just take a minute to myself.

When my wife returned, we settled back into our routine, consisting of 1-2 days per week when we eat dinner out as a family. These events can also be challenging, as our daughter is one of those kids who just cannot sit still for anything. She seems well connected to her surroundings and engages with us and others, but she is perpetual motion personified. So imagine my surprise when the littlest tornado actually sat in her chair for an entire meal!

My wife’s new secret weapon was a series of iPhone apps created especially for toddlers that one of her California girlfriends had recommended. The most popular with our daughter is Letter Tracer, which works as the name suggests. So my daughter was occupied by learning to write her letters. The device and screen provided the engagement that pen and paper hadn’t, and she delighted at being able to successfully trace all the letters of the alphabet, smiling and exclaiming “Look Daddy, I did it!” each time she completed a new tracing. My daughter was having a blast learning how to write her letters, and her parents were enjoying not just her growth but a nice restaurant experience as well.

As 2009 wound to a close, I engaged in my typical year-end organization efforts, scouring boxes and folders to discard what I didn’t need and properly file what I wanted to keep. When I found my original iPhone (16GB Edge; no 3, no G), my first thought was to sell it on eBay. I had great success selling an iPhone 3G on eBay, after all, getting $350 for one that had been exposed to moisture but was working perfectly. Then it hit me: why not load it up with iPhone apps for toddlers like Letter Tracer, put it in a heavy duty case with a screen protector, and make us into a three-iPhone family? Better, why not rip all the discs we use on a portable DVD player during long family trips, making it even easier to travel? My schedule didn’t allow me to finish configuring “her” iPhone before our trip to New Jersey for Christmas, but I was able to unveil it shortly after we returned, which turned out to be a good thing as I was home with our sick daughter the week between Christmas and New Year’s.

My three year old daughter now has her own iPhone, though without service so it is effectively an iPod touch. And how did I create a monster, you might ask? Easy. Her first words upon waking from sleep are “Where’s my iPhone?” Her reaction to her parents call to come to the dinner table, head upstairs for a bath or get ready for bed is to clutch her iPhone and cry. Even though I loaded her iPhone with some of her favorite apps from her mom’s phone (by re-downloading to our black Macbook, as I couldn’t get iTunes Home Sharing to work with my wife’s Macbook Air), she only really uses it to watch a small handful of videos that I ripped or downloaded. And she uses it constantly: sitting in a chair, laying on the floor, walking from room-to-room… head down, focused on the iPhone screen, it can be a challenge to get her to disengage with the device and engage with us.

So how can this be a good thing, or at least not bad? For one, I long ago read “Everything Bad is Good for You” by Steven Berlin Johnson, and take solace that her use of the iPhone at this early stage is at least teaching her some valuable skills, including human-computer interaction (for example, she is still mastering the art of touching a video then touching again on the appropriate icon to pause or play it). The videos I loaded are generally good quality educational content, so there are learning moments in them. And her ability to use the iPhone or not has quickly become the “carrot” and “stick” motivation we’ve long needed: she responds to our threats to take it away or promise to let her use it as with nothing that came before it.

As the novelty of watching videos begins to wear off, I expect our daughter to explore all of the possibilities that her iPhone offers. We’re already using the built-in clock to learn to tell time, Camera to take pictures, and Weather to see if it will snow today. I can imagine using apps like Best Camera to learn more about art and photography, or Vocabulearn Tagalog to learn her mom’s families native language (which I need to do before we go to the Philippines in a year or two). In the meantime, she’s already started to use some of the toddler apps I installed, like Kid Art, Voice Toddler Cards, and the Curious George Coloring Book.

The real challenge will be to help our daughter use her iPhone as an educational device, and avoid the trap of becoming too immersed to the detriment of social, motor, and other skills development. The real question is whether I’m a bad dad for giving a three year old an iPhone. What do you think?

UPDATE: The response generated by this post have been pretty emotional, ranging from “are you crazy?” to “way to go dude!” Most responses cautioned moderation, suggesting that as long as there was parental involvement and some limits to her using it, it likely wasn’t a bad thing.

I mentioned that she awoke from sleep asking “can I have my iPhone?” In the almost 3 weeks that have passed, the iPhone has followed a now established trajectory for many toys, games, and clothes. There is an initial period of intense interest, which soon wanes. The iPhone is now simply one of many toys at her disposal. In fact, she prefers her Barbie cupcake baking kit now, and her interest and infatuation for it seems to be lasting longer than it did with the iPhone. She can also read a couple of books on her own, though mostly through memorization. It is quite obvious that she prefers playtime and interaction with Mom and Dad, and we’re happy to give it.

Still, there are times when she wants to use the iPhone, and other times when we’re all too happy to rely on it. I really was worried shortly after giving it to her that I had made a major mistake. I’m less worried about that now, and more worried about just being a good dad.

Image courtesy of Flickr user jessica.garro

269 Responses to “UPDATED: I Gave My 3 Year Old an iPhone: Have I Created a Monster?”

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  2. creativebalorina

    Its a good idea to give that phone to your daughter. It helps her learn and educate herself with different things. The only thing I suggest is limiting the time she’s allowed to play with it. Just like you would limit the tv time. It isn’t good for her to get addicted to it or expect to have it whenever she’s good.

    Limit it to 2 hours a day or whatever you’d think appropriate.

  3. lol Fin1002, first press your caps lock key again. then learn proper English.
    what do poor people have to do with iphones anyway? i hate this mentality, if someone has quality things he should feel bad ?

    • Fin1002, first press your caps lock key again. Then learn proper English.

      What do poor people have to do with iPhones anyway? I hate this mentality, if someone has quality things he should feel bad?

      Fixed your English, it is kind of ironic how you make spelling and grammar mistakes while telling someone to learn proper English.


    • Dude, learn to A) Take off CAPS LOCK and B) spell correctly.
      Now that that is out of the way. Those poor people in other countries who don’t have a phone, computer or a TV probably don’t want one. Many people have tried to introduce those technological advances within these countries and the people who live there refuse to use it. So while some people in those countries may want it, they most likely have something. Most of the people in the underdeveloped countries are there for a reason. LACK OF INNOVATION.

    • I can’t even express the stupidity in your post. Perhaps by taking Caps Lock off and showing a shred of intelligence you might be worthy enough to actually have your view taken in consideration.

  5. An elementary schools teacher told me… the reasons teachers don’t like any video type electronics…everything happens immediately, quickly satisfied. When they get to school the teachers seem to be in “Slow Motion”.

  6. i think your a good dad but im a teenager nd it’s a thing 4 me 2 say that
    cuz my mom or dad wont even get me a new phne but yeah so i vote you as a good parent. plus your using it for educational purpposes…..well half tha time you are! :) laterzzz

    • I think your a good dad but I’m a teenager and it’s a thing for me to say that, because my mom or dad wont even get me a new phone. I vote you as a good parent. You’re using it for educational purposes. Well half the time you are! :) Goodbye.

      I fixed your incoherent wording and lack of grammar. Please, you are only proving that texting and phones are destroying a kid’s mind, refrain from it or you just look like a foolish kid.

      It’s kids like you that are the downfall of us who listened to the teacher.

      • You don't need to know

        By the way, Mason, who is really starting to make me sick, it’s you’re, not your. So if you are going to correct people every 5 seconds maybe you should correct them well. You see, everyone makes mistakes, even you!

    • He can without being stupid. Give the 3 year old a Miniature car that she can drive around in the back yard. As for the gun… well, you can give her a Nerf gun where she can work on hand-eye coordination

    • If that three year old got a car or a gun, I would hope she shoot or run over you. I hate people’s prejudice against the younger. The toddler could figure it out extremely quickly. Hell when I was three I had an affinity to technology and looked up book to read, when I was in the second grade I was reading at a 7th grade level. If I had an IPhone, I would look up book and read until the wee hours of the morning and would probably skipped grades 3 at a time for my affinity for words.
      What were you doing at 3? Probably sitting around doing nothing to strengthen your natural skills. If this 3 year old is half as intelligent as the phone, then she will be more successful then you and will probably use it better then you could in what, 3 days?

  7. Not at all a bad parent. When I upgraded to the new GS I did the same by giving my old to my toddlers. “Theirs” has all their apps, audiobooks, songs, movies, tv shoes, etc needed to entertain and keep them busy both in the car, in the house and out in public. My 2 year old knows her letters both by sight and in writing; the same with my 4 year old. Not only has it proved educational it helps to keep all their music and favorite books together to playback in the car and on planes. Easy peasy :)

  8. wordgreg

    Hey Haciendas, whisht.

    this is my scam! Beat it. Our address is 4 Aristea Crescent, Gordonsbaai, Republic of Souf Africa, 7140. Any of these gringos who unloads their tasty hardware into real space, instead of cyberspace, is sending it straight here by DHL.

    Go find your own blog to do business on.


    • Hello, are you kidding? What if he sees unrated photos?

      Best wishes,

      No need to use the return key to often. What forms a question, and you must either use best wishes as a ‘sign-off’ or have a verb and subject.

  9. I laughed when I saw this post…I have to say that I have a 3 year old who has been using his PopPops old 1st Gen iPhone since his 2nd birthday (when is grandpop got the 3G) and my biggest challenge is finding what to put on it for him – thanks for the suggestion of Letter Tracer – didn’t know about that one.

    We have a bunch of LeapFrog videos on it – like LetterFactory – and his preschool teachers were amazed when they started to learn letters and he knew them all by sight as well as the sounds they made.

    He knows it is his iPhone, he also knows when it is time to shut it off.

    • I knew of little ones who went to school knowing how to read and not how letters make which sounds in a so-called children program (which is actually degrade a child’s sharp mind and memory to a level of chidishness).
      You see, it’s possible. And the teachers would be amazed as well, at least some.

  10. having read and considered all parties spouting comfort thought: here is our recklessly considered


    you’re techno-smug

    proud of the technology you/we members of the human race created

    it’s not about your daughter or being a good dad

    it’s about what your cel phone already did to you:

    it turned you into an insect with an antennae.

    Now: the point you aren’t allowed to overlook when reading this, is: We are tremendously fond of insects! Do you even appreciate… the complexity of a spider?

    Ok so now (proud insect) you can go on reading.

    By Order of the above honourable Kort:

    Get into an article, any article in the Wikipedia that takes you back in history 200 to 800 years. Or to a place on this planet where celphones aren’t in use.

    It’s already TOO LATE for you to realize you could throw your celphone away for the next three months and you would be fine.

    This is our FINAL judgment. It IS the truth. You will NEVER realize this and you will DEFINITELY never do it.

    The human race is willingly ‘ascending’ to the insect vibration and if you fail to realize this: you aren’t giving insects their due.

    They live very complex lives: connected and controlled by their antennae.

    In this matter this Court is also making a further (impartial, of course) finding: This blog was started by Josh Pigford who is a friendly person. His name really is Josh Pigford, or, in the (balanced) opinion of this Court: Josh Friendly Pigford.

    Go Josh!

    You wouldn’t be called Josh Pigford if your name wasn’t Josh Pigford: with or without an iphone

  11. blackwatertown

    You might want to gradually withdraw the iPhone to avoid excessive dependence – and limit it to occasional use – thus leaving time for other non-screen based activities. Seeing as you asked.

  12. I’d say your case is very common these days. I know of a couple who came to parenthood late also; consequently, their two young boys started wearing glasses before 3 years old each, both growing up surrounded by a house maid (the youngest one day mistakenly called her “mama”), 2 or 3 different video game platforms, and of course, the TV. By the time the oldest reached three years old, he still couldn’t kick a football… which was rather bizarre (imo). Years ago, they went on vacations abroad and for what I know the kids spent most of the time at the hotel’s kindergarden.

    One of the kids is now on boyscouts and the other plays soccer, or something. But they never cut themselves, fell off a tree, anything of the sort. You know, getting home all muddy, bloody and an ear-to-ear smile (not saying it’s “better” of “worst”, just describing what they never experienced from what I assumed was a “natural childhood”). They are introverted and socially shy (even past 10 years old). I wish them the best, but it was either an educational issue, or it’s just genetic.

    I’m far from wanting to tell you how to be a father, or what’s right or wrong when bringing up a kid. Just told you a story from across the “pond”, since you’ve asked for feedback. I don’t like telling people what to do – but I surely wouldn’t put a gadget in the hands of my young ones. I’d probably buy them a cat, dog, bird, fish or whatever!

    Cheers and godspeed.

      • You don't need to know

        Who are you to correct EVERYONE? A school teacher? At first I thought it was nice, “Hey, someone is trying to teach people grammar.” But over and over seeing coments from “Mason” being sarastic and mean…don’t you have anything better to do than correct people? How about corrrecting yourself.

  13. Developmentalist notions of childhood tend to overplay the significance of stuff like this. Yes, social isolation can cause some serious issues. Yes, limited physical activity in childhood can set you up for problems later. Yes, there are consequences to anything in excess or extreme. This does not, by any stretch of the imagination, mean that every hour your child spends on her iPhone is contributing to an eventuality wherein she is severely socially awkward, developmentally delayed, and of limited intelligence.

    A positive environment for a child isn’t one where she is given everything she desires. Nor is it an environment wherein she is denied things on the basis of their perceived hazard, especially when that hazard only manifests in cases of excess.

    A three-year-old should be have access to tools that she can use safely when alone. As for tools slightly out of her developmental reach (i.e. kid scissors), she should be granted access to those too, assuming she has sufficient supervision. This is how children are challenged, how they learn to adapt to situations and overcome frustration, and also how they learn their own limits. Ipods, computers, Leapfrogs, etc… these are the tools of our time. She needs to learn them… just keep an eye on it.

  14. You gave a 3 year old an iPhone? You created a monster. Give them the iphone with deactivated sim / ipod touch when they’re 11 or 12. Let them use computers when they’re 8 or 9, they’ve got the whole life to catch up..

  15. I don’t think you’ve created a monster. Everyone creates himself.
    I just fear that once you get into it, you can hardly get out. Neither can your child. So you should rather let adult toys be the adults’ and give your child an additional hour to sleep or draw or read something by creating words out of hand-made letters. This will not harm her sensual skills, trust me. Didn’t harm me too and you as well.