The iPhone is the ultimate kid-pacification device.

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Nov. 30 2009 7:06 AM

Mother's Little Helper

The iPhone is the ultimate kid-pacification device.

Illustration by Robert Neubecker. Click image to expand.

Move over, patio man. My new favorite demographic is the iPhone mom. A recent survey from a mobile-advertising company says that iPhone moms make up 25 percent of iPhone users and rely on their phone for such things as: scheduling! Store locating! Downloading coupons! All very nice, but the key stat is that 59 percent of these moms let their children use the phone. That leaves me wondering what's up with the other 41 percent. The iPhone is the ultimate kid-pacification device.

The iPhone moms (and dads) walk a fine line when they hand over their phone. (In mobile-scholarship circles, this behavior is known as the "pass-back.") Typically, iPhone parents are the kind who limit TV and "screen time" and would cringe at buying a Nintendo DS for a 4-year-old. This is the wooden-toy crowd, who plan to sign up Sophie for Suzuki any day now. Yet, they—OK, me—really love their iPhones. So sleek, so intuitive—and isn't it incredible that even a 1-year-old can figure out how to use it?

My 1-year-old also likes to look at photos on the iPhone. What the video above doesn't show is how a youngster will get frustrated and throw the phone, or how he'll put it in his mouth and drool on it, or smush cookies into the charging port and fry the whole motherboard. Even better: how he'll use his cute little fingers to get into your e-mail and forward messages to your co-workers.

I salute the Apple usability team for creating an interface that a toddler can intuit, but how about a "Kid Mode" in the next software update? It would disable e-mail, text messaging, the actual phone, and YouTube. And maybe the home button, when you're using an app. (Yes, the iPhone parent will still need a way to quit apps. When in Kid Mode™, turning the ringer on or off shall act as the home button.) Isn't it in your best interest to foster a new generation of iKids?

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The beauty of the iPhone is how it can be configured to balance the need to entertain a restless child with the guilt you feel for wanting a few minutes of peace. If the situation calls for going to DEFCON 1, simply load up the iPhone with Wall-E, Paddington Bear, Backyardigans, and Cars. You may never see your child or your phone again.

Most parents try to walk a more subtle, self-serving path: seeking out "educational" apps. Developers are on to us—there is a lot of kiddie crap lurking in the iTunes store. You pay 99 cents for some "Farm" app that turns out to be six stock photographs and a much too realistic pig sound that makes your 1-year-old cry. The best apps should be aesthetically pleasing, easy to use, occupy your kid (but not in a glazed-eyeball way), and not so addicting that you start playing them yourself—every free moment, late at night, when you should be getting some sleep.

That's what happened to me with SlotZ Racer, a slot-car racing game. I thought it would be good for my 4-year-old boy because it involves cars and the controls are simple: Press the screen to accelerate, don't press the screen to slow down. He loved it. I loved it, too. I missed my subway stop because I was at a crucial moment in the National Cup Championship, "a 6 race series to find the top racer in the country."

SlotZ Racer is perhaps too much fun and should be used only for no-escape moments, such as when you're working at home and need reasonable silence during a phone call. Other apps that fall into this category include Skee-Ball and Monster Trucks Nitro. Another downside of these apps—let's call them games—is that they make your iPhone very attractive, and pretty soon your kid is hiding behind the couch and you're saying things like, "Give Daddy his phone back or he will delete all of the games."

So the ideal app should be enjoyable but carry a faint whiff of the classroom. I have friends who swear by PopMath and Wordex. My own go-to app has been the matching game AniMatch—it has clever animal icons and funny sounds, and matching is a challenge that doesn't require sophisticated manipulation of the phone. The boys will even play it together. As in all things, the 1-year-old is easier to amuse. He's content with Wheels on the Bus and the pleasant storybook pastels of Peekaboo Barn.

For picking new apps, I've found that the best way is to go by studio. Freeverse makes both SlotZ Racer and Skee-Ball, Night & Day has Peekaboo Barn and Peekaboo Wild, Duck Duck Moose has an excellent Old MacDonald, and so on. But you can also see that my list of apps is utterly incomplete. I have boys, so I've heard only rumors of girls dedicating themselves to the care of an iHusky in iPuppyWorld or guiding fairies through the sky. And I don't know what interests older kids who have reached Rubik's Cube age.