iPhones for the Under-Two Set

My fourteen month-old daughter Thuy (who is completely adorable, by the way) adores few material objects in this world more than she does my iPhone. Among all of the toys that we’ve given her, and even among all of the things that she’s turned into toys, the iPhone is the one that consistently grabs her attention in almost any situation.

She’s at an age though where she doesn’t really use the phone so much as she just randomly handles it, pushing buttons on the screen here and there, turning it around, even holding it up to her ear (often backwards or upside down) to babble a conversation to some imaginary friend on the other end of the line. Mostly she’s just imitating what she sees her mother and me do when we use our iPhones, but it doesn’t change the fact that it can command her attention for ten or twenty minutes at a time — and for a parent of a young child, that’s gold.


Aside from its exorbitant cost, the iPhone is almost a perfect toy for her. Add a reasonably rugged case and it’s even more suitable for short spans of supervised play. Except for that damn home button.

As the only hardware button on the device’s face, the home button essentially functions as a huge target that commands Thuy to push it, and she complies. I might launch any of the great, kid-friendly apps and games that I’ve installed for her to play with, but she finds the home button completely irresistible and usually manages to activate it, escaping her out of the app and back to the home screen. From there of course she can really do some damage.

Right: Not just an excuse to post a picture of my daughter, but actual real evidence that she uses the iPhone.

I wish Apple would allow developers of kid-friendly apps a way to temporarily disable that button in software. Of course, I’m a realist and so I’m not going to hold my breath. The best I can do instead is hope that some enterprising iPhone case manufacturer out there comes up with a clever design to let parents somehow prevent access to that home button. Sort of like the child safety caps you’ll see on prescription drug bottles, but for the iPhone. C’mon guys, help a father out.

  1. My three year old is now totally addicted to our ipad. My bigger pet peeve (than the home button) is that oftentimes he holds an app icon too long, brings up the edit apps function, and moves (or worse) deletes the apps! I would prefer that they disable that.

    As an aside I think that all the companies who make electronics for kids (eg. vtech) are going to be in big trouble. Why would a parent buy one of their devices when you can get an app that does more for less.

  2. Daniel: I agree with that sentiment on childrens technology companies. They’re in for a shakeup, to be sure.

    I think the problem you’re describing with the edit apps function could be fixed by just preventing access to the home button. That way you can launch an app and your child stays within that app without access to the home screen where that function is available.

  3. There are few things equally amazing and depressing than hearing your two-year-old say, with the deepest of convictions, “Hold on a minute – I need to check my email.”

    He’s three now, and I can’t get the iPad away from him. Luckily all he’s interested in is the Dr. Seuss ebooks (which are great, by the way), and matching games.

  4. I guess I should have been more clear. I don’t really mind my son changing apps. In fact (as you will probably soon discover) they like to change apps…a lot.

    Adding a setting to disable edit the menu mode would solve this.

  5. Khoi, would something like this do the trick?

    Ballistic HC iPhone case

    Slip a something between the home button and that clear outer plastic — maybe a trimmed-down business card would do? – and you should be all set.

    The only downside is that it’s not pretty, unlike your daughter who is utterly adorable. Aww!

  6. I don’t know if I read this, or if it’s a conversation I had with my wife — when you have kids everything becomes a blur — but just like you can toggle the iPhone to go into airplane mode, you should be able to toggle it into kid mode, enabling only a set of apps and disabling the ability for kids to delete apps, send text messages, or make impromptu calls to a client. Our three-year-old loves the iPhone and our biggest peeve is the patina of kid-crap that she manages to smear all over the screen. Touching the screen feels like petting a toad. So for us, it’s more of a software issue than a hardware one.

  7. I think Armin is on the right track.

    At 14 months you don’t want Thuy to be able to use the home button.

    But at 3 that won’t satisfy her. Or you. She’ll want to change between her favourite apps, and you’ll have to do it for her. Unless you’re prepared to risk her deleting apps.

    A Kid mode that could be toggled on and off quickly, but which could be customised within Settings to suit one’s particular circumstances would seem to be the best solution.

    But I’m guessing Steve’s youngest kid is probably too old for this functionality to be added anytime soon.

  8. Michael: I think you and Armin are right; I don’t really know what’s going to work for her in a year or two. I should’ve framed this quick idea as a short-term fix.

    Also, your comment about Steve’s youngest kid being too old for this functionality to be added anytime soon is hilarious and so true.

    Amakie: Like a lot of babies her age, the last thing Thuy is interested in is anything that looks or feels like a toy. What she wants to play with are things that her parents use all the time — remote controls, stereos, wallets, cameras and iPhones.

  9. Do parental controls allow you to prevent moving or deleting apps?

    Surprised no one has mentioned the Griffin Woogie. Looks perfect for kids.

  10. Khoi
    I can relate to Armin’s comment about it’s all a blur looking back. Dads need all the help they can get. One of my student’s Mother started a company called ALEX from her home years ago and they have a no-mess finger painting tray for $15.99. It is a wonderful way to work with her to discover a new creative world.

    Alex Toys No Mess Finger Paint Tray

    But if you are on the move, you can purchase a painting app for her on the iPad and save all her abstract expressionist paintings. It is just like tray figure painting which you can do at home with her. We use Brushes and SketchBook Pro with our kids. In Brushes you can make a movie of her design thinking process.

  11. I’ve seen this a lot and it makes me wonder — is it the iPhone’s compelling yada yada or is it the fact that they see us use them so much. They want what we want. My cat is also obsessed with my iPhone. She doesn’t play with it, though. She bites it. I think she is jealous…

  12. My iPhone is STILL a lifesaver with my 4 year old. A friend of mine thought it was because we treat our devices with such a huge amount of preciousness that the kids can’t help but covet too.

    There are kid web browsers that lock the child out of the rest of the computer and only allow them to browse “safely” within a predetermined environment, I don’t see why that couldn’t be an iPhone mode as well.

  13. Huh. I was just reading this Q&A on the train this morning — about the potential of cell phones to harm children:

    Why cellphones may be killing us

    Then came across this post and comments about you all letting the kids play with your phones. I’d be curious to hear your reactions to the assertions made in that interview/book. I recognize it plays into my own paranoia so I’m not sure what to think of it …

  14. Khoi, my 21/2 yo daughter loves to look at pictures. I’d, therefore, also like the ability to block image deletion. Occasionally, while she’s scrolling, swiping, etc. through the Camera Roll album, she’ll accidentally press the Trash icon and then unwittingly delete an image.

  15. A ‘Kid Mode’ would certainly be of use, but also a button lock on remote controls would be especially useful. Like Khoi said, children are far more interested in the things we use. I have an iPod Touch which my 4 and 5 year old play on quite happily, but they would really like one each (which isn’t going to happen). They do know how to share, but it would be cool to have your expensive iPhone (or iPod) as a master device which you keep hold of, and the children have cheap and dumb slave touchscreens to access appropriate content. They could smear them all they like then.

  16. This is a nice article Khoi, one, i guess, many people can relate to. My daughter also wants to play with my Samsung G S. all the time..
    But I wonder if kids are so interested in smartphones because of being such an incredible piece of technology or because they see their parents being all into these gadgets 🙂

  17. My simple solution to this was to dedicate my iPod Touch solely to my 2 and 4.5 year old. If they mess anything up, I plug it into our workstation and it syncs everything back.

    Plus they love being able to play with their “phone” at the same time as daddy, especially using shared whiteboard apps where we can draw on each other screens (squeeeeeeels of delight always ensue).

  18. I’m totally with you. I was pleased to give our 2-year-old my decommissioned iPhone 3G this summer–doubly so when he promptly lost it. When he or his little bro gets a hold of my active iPhone, I worry that they’ll mash the Emergency Call button.

    Incidentally, both kids love Alpha Baby for Mac. The little guy toddles in requesting “Moon, moon!” (it produces random shapes when some keys are pressed). I use it with the Alfred quick-launch tool so that I can kid-safe my Mac in just a second or two when I see him coming.

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  20. I doubt if it is a good idea to let kids (especially that young) play with electronic gadgets. There are several reasons why I believe this is not such a good idea: kids want to have something responsive, something physical. A glass touchscreen has not the same responsiveness as a book made of paper, or does not provide the same sensual experience like a wooden brick, for instance. We know that kids hardly need anything special to be attracted: most kids can develop their own games with an old newspaper, some stones, marbles. It’s okay to get kids into new media, but two year old is way too young 😉

  21. iOS 4.2 now has added a new restrictions option for Deleting Apps that at least solves the problem of youngsters accidentally deleting apps.


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