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Your Smartphone: A Cheap Babysitter

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Ronda Kaysen: To Jennifer Woodward, her iPhone is more than just a means of communicating with the world: It's also a great way to keep her two boys occupied during their 40-minute commute every day.

boy using cellphone in car

"If we load up for a long trip, oh my gosh! I could be loading up all sorts of stuff -- papers and crayons and DVDs and Nintendo games!" says Woodward, who lives in North Carolina. "Now I can just have it on one little thing." With the myriad apps available for children -- everything from video games to flashcards to Etch A Sketch pads -- the possibilities for entertaining restless kids is endless.

The car isn't the only place where the iPhone comes in handy. Woodward's 10-year-old uses a flashcard app after he's done with his homework (to practice multiplication tables), and her 4-year-old loves watching the children's classic stories created by Woodward's employer, an iPhone-app company called Once Upon an App.

As more and more moms trade in their cell phones for smartphones, they are finding that the devices serve a second purpose: that of portable babysitter. CNN has reported that nearly half of the 100 top-selling educational apps in the iTunes App Store were created for preschool and elementary-school kids, according to the Joan Ganz Cooney Center, an organization that supports using digital media for children's education.

Since nearly all kids these days have access to a cell phone (even if they don't have one themselves), odds are that, as more people switch to smartphones, more parents are going to keep an app or two on their phone just for that tedious wait at the doctor's office or that endless dinner in a restaurant.

"I see that in my office every day," says Dr. Ari Brown, an Atlanta-based pediatrician and author of the books "Baby 411" and "Toddler 411." "I come in, and the kid is playing on their parent's phone while they're waiting for me." 

But not all apps are created equal, and parents should choose the apps they give their kids wisely. "Do I have a problem with a kid doing something potentially educational with it? No," says Brown. "Do I have a problem with a kid watching TV with it all day? Yes. That's not a good idea."

The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends no screen time for kids under 2, and no more than two hours a day for children 2 and up -- and that includes time spent fiddling with mom's iPhone. But that recommendation has been largely ignored, according to studies. Teens spend as much as eight hours a day using media devices, and that number is likely to rise even more now that most moms have portable gaming devices in their purses.

Woodward says that she limits how much time her boys spend on the iPhone and always makes sure they have time to play. However, she sees introducing her kids to technology and letting them get comfortable with electronic devices as key to their future success in a gadget-filled world. "We as parents need to take advantage of this technology," she says. "The iPhone is a tool that is going to help [my son] improve his schoolwork."

Not all moms are excited about the new trend. Some, like Valerie Crider of New York, keep their kids as far away from their cell phones, portable gaming devices, TVs and portable DVD players as possible. Crider doesn't own a smartphone -- and doesn't plan to get one. Her three kids have never even been allowed to play with her traditional cell phone, which she says is off-limits. "The tech stuff kind of drives me crazy," she says, recalling a recent child's birthday party where a mother and daughter spent most of the party texting each other from separate rooms. "It's so distracting."

During car rides, Crider expects her kids to look out the window and notice the surroundings. And at restaurants, she expects her children to interact with the other people at the table. "Once you have that handheld game, you only play that -- and you can't interact with other people," she says. She does make some exceptions, though: For exceptionally long journeys, the portable DVD player comes out of the closet.

Are moms really doing their kids a huge disservice by plopping an iPhone in their hands for 30 minutes while they cook dinner or finish up a pressing work deadline? Many experts say no.

"Moms are made to feel guilty about this kind of thing, but the bigger picture is that, for a lot of moms, there's a real issue about time and how to manage it," says Karen Sternheimer, a sociologist at the University of Southern California and author of "Connecting Social Problems and Popular Culture: Why Media Is Not the Answer."

Until moms have access to enough childcare, they'll continue to find inventive ways to keep their kids occupied while they tend to pressing tasks, according to Sternheimer. The iPhone apps, she says, "are a very creative solution to a big problem that, as a society, we've been lax in tackling -- and that's the problem of childcare."

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