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Dr. Jim Taylor Headshot

iPhone: High-Tech Child Abuse?

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No, I'm not referring to parents whacking their children with their iPhones. I'm talking about the new ways in which parents can now 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.

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, cave parents gave their cave kids 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 limits; 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 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 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, too many parents these days 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 give 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.

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