IPhone apps emerge as newest electronic pacifier

Infant experts say children under two should not be exposed to television, but baby video games and toddler iPhone apps are growing in popularity.
Ella, 2, plays a game with her dad's iPhone during a family outing. ((John Bowman))
When Alexandra Samuel's two-year-old first sat down to play a video game on her iPhone, the Vancouver mom was more worried about his impact on the device than the effect it could have on him.

Samuel was surprised by what happened next.

"What blew my mind was that within four days of us first handing him the iPhone, if you gave him the phone while it was off, he knew to hit the power button, slide to unlock, navigate to the iPod apps, navigate to the videos and then start Diego play," said Samuel, director of social and interactive media at Emily Carr University.

"Nobody taught him, he just figured it out, and I'd love to tell you he's a genius," said Samuel, who with her husband also runs the social marketing website

In our technological world, it's not so much a question of whether you allow your toddler to play on the computer or iPhone, but when you do and at what age, in months.

The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) recommends no TV screen time for kids under two, claiming that "during this time, children need positive interaction with other children and adults," according to the AAP website.

Other infant experts worry that interactive computer games could be mistaken for a "learning opportunity."

"You can't fast-track the brain," said Claire Watson, co-founder of the Toronto-based First Three Years, an infant development program used by public health agencies across Canada.

"The major concern for me is that parents don't fall into the trap that these games are going to teach their babies something. It's pure entertainment. Infants at that age learn in the concrete world. A one-year-old is not going to be able to learn shapes from watching a triangle or a square on a screen. That's way too abstract," said Watson.

But as Samuel sees it, she's not relying on iPhone apps to educate her kid.

"The number one reason for us having let them use the iPhone is you're at a restaurant, the kids are reaching their expiry date and ...... the best kid-entertainment is the kid-entertainment you have with you," she said.

"It buys us a few minutes of patience under many different circumstances," said Samuel.

At  27 months, Ella Bowman of Toronto is also an old hand at manipulating computers to find her favourite video game or podcast. Like Samuel's son, the iPhone is her favourite because no mouse or keyboard is involved.

"She loves the iPhone, the toddler games - Find the Elephant, Find the E," said John Bowman, her father and a Toronto technology writer with

"But she doesn't stay in toddler games. She'll hit the bottom button, find the Sesame Street podcast, watch that."

Infant video games popular

Maryland father of five Jim Robinson is getting kudos all around for developing, an ad-free website that offers free video games for babies.

"We had two young kids and they were just beginning to explore the internet: Disney, Sesame Street," Robinson, a co-owner of the ad agency Punch Communications, said in an interview with CBC News.

"Then we had a third child, a little girl, and at about nine months, she started to want to get on the computer too with her brother and sister," said Robinson.

Kneebouncers now attracts more then 125,000 hits a month.

Most people approve of it, judging by the parenting blogs. There's nary a negative word to be found on the internet about, which is somewhat surprising because parenting and video screen time is often a hotly debated topic.

Samuel remembers worrying about what others would think when she first handed the iPhone to her two-year-old to keep him occupied at an important moment.

"We were at a hippie retreat, and we were very self-conscious. It was like a room full of people whose children had probably never even seen television, and here we are giving our kids little video things."

Like the many iPhone apps, Robinson's Kneebouncer games has come at a time when parents seem desperate to find new ways to entertain baby or get a break from the intensity of 24-hour parenting without the help of extended family.

"A lot of mothers have written to tell us, 'Thank you, I was able to made dinner tonight, or I was able to write an email,'" said Robinson. "That wasn't the intent of the website but that's great, use it as you need it."

Parents online describe the bliss of being able eat meals at restaurants or wait in line while their infant is kept entertained and quiet by the iPhone.

"Keeping a two-year-old occupied and quiet is something man has struggled with since the dawn of time," wrote Curtis Walker on, a technology blog.

He, like so many other parent bloggers, not only approves of toddler iPhone apps, but has devoted columns to reviewing them.

Scores of infant and toddler iPhone apps are now available, with more and more are coming online.

"I think a lot of people are just looking for, 'How can I distract my kid for half an hour and make that half hour the best way to possibly spend it with me on a break?' That half hour is so that you can keep your sanity," says Brandon Bell, founder and creative director of New York-based Design-o-matic.

Design-o-matic has developed the iPhone apps Monster ABC for Media Brands, and is in the process of developing a second one called Pauline Investigates at the Farm.

"Although the market is exploding for these little apps and online games for kids, I think you have to be realistic about them. They're just games," Bell said in an interview.

Robinson said parents have to use their common sense when it comes to putting baby in front of any screen.

"People do write me, saying 'I don't let my child watch TV.' We hear that. But it's common sense. You don't leave a baby in front of a computer all day. Moderation. It's like an online rattle. They play with it; get stimulated. They laugh then move on. It's a toy," he said.

For Samuel, she sets over all time limits on the amount of time the kids can spend in front of a computer screen.

"But you know, we really struggle with that whole question of how wired to be, but I sort of feel like, live by the sword, die by the sword," she said.

"My husband and I are professional techies, we are total screen junkies ourselves, we have five computers in the house, we are constantly on our phones and it's just who we are. And I don't think it's any worse for the kids than it is for us."