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

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