iPhone: The Latest in Parental Expediency

July 12th, 2010

By Dr. Jim Taylor

Parents now have more ways than ever to keep their kids distracted, entertained, and otherwise occupied, in other words, out of their hair. Parental expediency has truly reached new heights thanks to the iPhone and its army of clever app developers.

Expediency is one of the most dangerous words in parenting. It means doing what is easiest for parents, what best meets their own needs rather than the needs of their children. Unfortunately, parental expediency and what is in the best interests of children don’t usually play well together. Instantly pacifying children may be the path of least resistance for parents in the short run, but it is not the best path for children’s development in the long run.

But let’s be realistic. Parents have done the expedient thing with their children to make being a parent easier for as long as humans have roamed the earth. Back when we had just become Homo Erectus, caveparents gave their cavekids a stick or bone to keep them occupied. As our species has evolved, so has the sophistication of parents’ strategies. There were dolls and toys of increasingly mind-absorbing design. With the discovery of electricity, a new era of parent expediency emerged. Dolls could now walk and talk. Toys moved, played sounds, and lit up. The radio helped, though without the visual stimulation it just couldn’t hold children captive for that long.

Then along came the real game-changing tool in parents’ expediency toolbox. Yes, folks, the television. Parents now had an infallible method for keeping their children entertained for hours without having to do anything more effortful than flip a switch (or later, press a button on the remote). But the television had its limited; it only worked at home. By the turn of the new millennium, the television started to become quaint and, well, so 20th century as a tool for parental expediency.

But the march of technology is inexorable and the creative genius that has spurred this era of technological innovation stepped up to the plate and provided parents with increasingly sophisticated ways to pacify their children. Of course, there was the computer, video-game consoles, and DVD players that kept children occupied at home. But the call of the wild outside of the house beckoned and technology heard the call.

First came the portable DVD player followed closely by the portable video-game devices which enabled parents to be expedient in restaurants, on airplanes, and in cars. But even that wasn’t enough to make parents’ lives easier. automobile manufacturers got into the act, providing built-in DVD, video-game, and music players and screens in cars, mini-vans, and SUVs, making those long (or short) car rides a breeze for parents and children alike.

But the piece de resistance is the iPhone and its myriad of child-mollifying apps. It is truly the Swiss Army knife of parental expediency offering children video games, music, movies, and even drawing. Now, no matter where parents are — in a car, in the woods, at a park, during a family gathering — children can be entertained or quieted by that small, yet hypnotic screen.

Don’t get me wrong. There is a place for expediency; it’s a necessary part of parents maintaining their sanity in the crazy world of raising children in the 21st century. Parents have the right to some time of their own to do important grown-up things such as talk to another adult, bathe, or have a martini.

My concern is when 21st century expediency becomes the default mode for dealing with bored, cantankerous, or annoying children. Instead of talking to or playing with the children or helping them find something to do on their own that might allay their current state, parents just pull out their iPhone and hand it to their children.

What are the ramifications of children who aren’t left to their own devices (no pun intended) when they don’t have anything to do? First, based on my observations of children who appear “addicted” to their parents’ iPhones, I would speculate that the frequent use of iPhones by children triggers the same neural pleasure-inducing activity in the brain as do drugs, sex, and gambling.

The inability to be bored may also have serious implications later in life. Let’s face it, many jobs, in the factory, store, or office, are boring. And if this new generation was weaned on the iPhone to entertain them, where you do you think they’ll turn when they get bored at work (and how do you think that will impact their productivity and job performance)?

Technology-dependent children may also lose their initiative. If, when children get bored, cranky, or bothersome, their parents immediately given them their iPhone, the children are deprived of the opportunity to ask themselves how they might get out of their stimulus-deprived doldrums on their own. As I’m sure you can see, lack of initiative will present real problems in adulthood.

Patience, or the ability to delay gratification, is one of the most significant predictors of positive behaviors in adolescence, including higher grades, less alcohol and drug use, and less sexual activity. The immediate gratification of parents giving their iPhones to their children to appease them may interfere with their learning to put off rewards until a later time.

Lastly, children whose parents ensure that they are immediately entertained may have a harder time developing respect for others. Children may not learn that other people’s time is valuable and that parents have other responsibilities beyond their children. Children may also not learn that sometimes they have to be respectful of others and need to just sit and wait until their parents finish what they are doing.

I’m not trying to demonize iPhones; they just happen to be the most ubiquitous and egregious example in our technological landscape. Nor am I suggesting that parents who use their iPhones periodically to assuage their children are abusing them (the title was just intended to get your attention). At the same time, I would argue that parents who use their iPhones as the default means of occupying their children are, at best, doing a disservice to them and, at worst, may be doing some real harm to their long-term development.

(This article was also posted at Dr. Jim Taylor’s Blog.)

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4 Responses to “iPhone: The Latest in Parental Expediency”

  1. Lisa |

    When my daughter was three, I retired from the military and spent the next several years absolutely exhausted creating a balanced lifestyle for her. Every day there was a little of everything: arts and crafts, outdoor time, a little TV, lots of reading, playing, socializing etc. Now years later as she enters 8th grade, the pay off is huge. It is alot of work but isn’t it our responsibility to mentor tomorrow’s leaders?

  2. PaulGF |

    Well… Dr. Jim,

    After spending the day with my nephews, and their dog, I must say that the “blame the technology” trope is pretty lame. My nephews (8 & 10) are pretty hip. Despite that, we walked the dog, went bowling, and made some lunch together (before playing video-games). All rather human (and planned).

    They also knew what a “boom-box” was when I explained the “old school” history of teen technology to them. The boys were kind enough to clue “uncle” in as to how the wii machine worked. I did pretty well with it.

    Narrow? I also have three nieces (10 & 7 (twins)). The oldest is a prodigy on many fronts. She excels in math, science and music. She also does quite well in English and “social” studies. All three take dance/gymnastics classes. They have a tremendous amount of fun doing that. I am the beneficiary of this in terms of 1 or 2 shows a year (depending), and it is one of the coolest experiences one could hope to have.

    I realize that you shifted from “blaming” technology to shifting the responsibility to parents for utilizing it as a means of “pacification”. I would also lament your assumption that children will be necessarily dumbed-down by such developments. Did not the children who grew up with LP’s and 8-tracks or cassettes also conceive, design and produce the Walkman and I-pod? Has imagination itself been stunted, or do you simply fail to see possibilities among our youth because you failed to think of it first? And by the way, not every child is exceptional…

    Technology is not the enemy. Bad parenting is sadly a fact of history and everyday life. Knowledge,judgment and experience are better precursors and predictors of proper child development than any other superfluous factors. Back to square one- hold the parents responsible. Technology is but a tool…

  3. Aearlath |

    The iPhone wasn’t really the first portable gaming thingy to hit us. I remember (yes I’m dating myself here) the lovely black and white Gameboy. (Yes, the one I won’t admit I ever played unless there’s a bunch of nerds present.) To an extent I agree about the pacification however. Entertainment should never take the place of raising children. In fact, I’m beginning to see a serious issue along these lines, and not just for children. The prevalence of portable electronics, particularly with wireless capabilities that are relatively recent, may be doing far more harm than good. It seems to me that as a society, we are getting more and more “wired” and our attention spans are getting shorter and shorter.

  4. Dr. Jim Taylor |

    @Lisa: yes, it is hard work and it is our job as parents. Too often though, I see parents taking the path of least resistance with their children. Your efforts were rewarded.

    @PaulGF: You missed my point to a degree. I was not demonizing technology, but suggesting that when it is used in a way that is expedient, then it can be harmful. Conversely, when it is used in a thoughtful and balanced way by parents as tools (as you suggest), then technology can be a fun and potentially useful part of a child’s life.

    I would also suggest that times have changed. It is not that we didn’t have “technology” back in the day, but rather it was not such a dominant and time-consuming part of our lives. If you don’t believe that, the Kaiser Foundation has done considerable research on the topic and, as one example, children between 8-17 spend over 7 hours on average per day interacting with technology and when they included multitasking, the time increased to 11 hours per day. The researchers were shocked because when they did the study in 2005, the total was 5 hours (not including multitasking) and they thought, given the demands of schools, family, etc., those numbers couldn’t increase.

    And I totally agree with your last paragraph.

    @Aerlath: You should read The Shallows, a new book by Nicolas Carr who wrote a fascinating Atlantic Monthly article titled Is Google Making Us Stupid (you can find it on line). Though technology is an amazing tool in so many ways, we simply don’t know what the ramifications of its use will be on us. Of course, we are an adaptable species, so we will adjust, but there will likely be costs.

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