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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?”

  1. boomboom

    we did the exact same thing with our 4 year old son. he’s super adept at using the iphone and has even become really interested in photography by using the camera function. all in all, i think it’s a pretty awesome idea….until i try to take it away and he acts like a junkie. :)

  2. My daughter was two and could work the i phone better then me she loves the toddler apps! She writes her name she knows her shapes its great! but i didnt go out and buy her an i phone even tho she would love it i bought her a isher price ixl pretty much the same with a pen and she does great for a child that is oh most 3

  3. We have to balance out what we give to a child. Technology is useful if used correctly and at the correct level. However, nothing beats face to face interaction. Just do not forget that element.

  4. To me this is just stupid, Theres teens and adults that don’t have cellphones/iphones and here a little 3 year old gets one. I think you shuld just find better ways to take care of kids than tv/internet/phones/cell phones/ect. they aren’t cheap and 3? You can barely talk!

  5. Like many other educations devices like LeapFrog and VTech, I’d expect that this will be a phase for her too. With my son, I limited how long he can play it a day because I am one of those mothers that insists he plays outside with friends as much as he does on the PlayStation or Nintendo DS. I don’t see the harm in her playing the educational games she can get in a toy store on her dad’s old iPhone. I don’t see the difference in the two devices other than the stereotype of it being the iPhone.

  6. I don’t think that you have too much to worry about with your daughter. As long as you regulate her time with it and make sure it does not consume her life, then everything will be o.k. At first it may be hard because it is a new toy to her, but eventually she’ll lose interest or move onto the next toy. Good luck

  7. Well, I do not think you are a bad father for giving her the iPhone…however like you said you are afraid that she may have become addicted to it at times. I wouldn’t worry too much about it honestly though because any time you give a child new and interesting toys to play with, they are consumed with it at first. So just as long as you put limits on it like would other things and be sure shes engaging in other activities I think it’ll be alright.

  8. Environmental & Nutritional Consultants

    I just wanted to suggest that you make sure that iPhone has airplane mode enabled so it isn’t emitting radiation that is becoming more and more of concern regarding the health of humans, especially in children. In Europe, cell phone use for children until age 10 is banned.

    Just worth considering.

  9. As a mother of 3 I oh so well how kids can get sucked into things like the video games. The phone isn’t really any different then T.v. and video games just make sure she’s getting more outside play time or even play dates, hide the phone for a while. It will be hard at first but after a while she will find other things that interest her. Believe me I’ve had to do this many times with ba ba’s to binkys, movies and the hand held video games my son becomes so sucked into. I figured out when his battery went dead and we didn’t have the charger for a while he started to draw and play again. Trust me she may cry for a few days but if you are concerned to charge and of the situation and make it go away for a while or for good if you want…

  10. When I was a little child, everyone was very concerned about tv, that seems mostly forgotten. Now every parent is worried about computers. I play MMO’s with my children, they have their own phone and at the age of 12 they will own their own pc or laptop (whichever they prefer). Of course they have a wii and xbox and nintendo. And yes, they still love to play outside. They just grow up in another age than we did. My children, though a bit older, are very aware that calling emergency numbers is a crime (here it is). They see that on tv all the time ;)