Parents using smartphones to entertain bored kids

When Julie Sidder’s daughters were younger, her diaper bag was filled with coloring books, crayons, storybooks and little games in case one of them became restless.

Now that Sidder’s kids are 4 and 7, the diaper bag is gone, but the need for entertainment – especially in restaurants – is not, which is why two-thirds of the apps on Sidder’s iPhone are for her children.

“People have always brought toys, or something to entertain their child, into restaurants and stores,” says the mom, who lives in West Bloomfield, Michigan. “Now we just have better technology.”

Harried parents for years have relied on glowing electronic screens – TVs, video games, computers – to entertain children in the home. Now more and more parents are discovering smartphones’ similar ability to engage squirmy kids at restaurants, in the car and anywhere else where youngsters grow bored.

Almost half of the top 100-selling education apps in the iTunes App Store were for preschool or elementary-aged children in November 2009, according to a content analysis by the Joan Ganz Cooney Center, which promotes digital media technologies to advance children’s learning.

Expert Carly Shuler says the reason for this – assuming the majority of 3- to 10-year-olds don’t own their own phones – is because adults are taking advantage of the smartphone’s ability to act as a mobile learning or entertainment device for their children.

Shuler, a fellow at the Joan Ganz Cooney Center (part of the Sesame Workshop) calls this phenomenon the “pass-back” effect – as in parents passing their phones back to their bored kids.

Shortly after the iPhone came out, Shuler said she noticed children as young as 3 years old playing with the shiny devices.

“I saw it on the subway, at the grocery store – anywhere you’d see a parent and child interacting,

really,” she said.

Even AT & T acknowledged this trend in the current commercial where Luke Wilson “passes back” a smartphone to a crying child in a restaurant, Shuler said.

App developers have noticed and are creating kids’ games for phones, even though they don’t think toddlers are buying smartphones, she said.

Almost all children in the U. S. have access to a mobile device, according to the Sesame Workshop. A 2007 study found that 93 percent of 6 to 9-year-olds had access to a cell phone in the home and more than 30 percent owned their own phone. Shuler said these number have only increased since the study was conducted.

So how do such young children come to understand this new touchscreen technology?

“A child is not as afraid that they’re going to break something or do something wrong [as adults are],” Shuler said. “They’re more likely to pick [the phone] up and just play with it, which is the best way to learn.”

Toddler Teasers is one of the apps Sidder downloaded for her 4-year-old daughter, Ava. Sidder said the educational app, which asks Ava to pick out certain shapes, is a fun learning tool the pair can play together.

But Sidder says even the less educational apps on her iPhone, such as Disney Cover Styler, Red Carpet Dress Up and 7-year-old Ella’s favorite, Shrek Cart, are teaching her kids hand-eye coordination and to be comfortable with technology.

“I don’t use [the iPhone] to parent my child,” she said. “I use it to entertain them… if they’re on it an hour a week, that’s a lot. When we’re sitting at home, they’re not playing on my phone. It’s just something that they do when we’re out.”

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Parents using smartphones to entertain bored kids