Last year, Zidane Afridi destroyed his parents’ laptop. The computer, still under its standard yearlong warranty, was no match for the toddler, who spilled his water all over it. Despite this, the smiling Manhattanite hasn’t had his technology privileges completely revoked. While members of the Afridi family have learned that babies and laptops don’t mix, according to his mom, Suzy, they have yet to make that call when it comes to their iPhone.
And at age 2 1/2, Zidane may be well on his way to being able to text before he’s able to write his name. The Afridis are among the growing number of parents using their iPhones, laptops and other gadgets — pricey ones — that aren’t coated in orange plastic and bear the Fisher-Price stamp to entertain and educate their children.
“He watches mostly kids’ shows like ‘Dora the Explorer,’” said Suzy, 35, a stay-at-home mom studying to be a CPA. “Or we try to find him Arabic cartoons, ones we used to like when we were young.”
The family uses YouTube as a way to keep culture alive at home. Mom and Dad search for videos in Arabic and English that teach their son the basics, like the alphabet, colors and numbers, said 34-year-old Sakib, a creative director at an advertising agency in New York.
“Some of it is educational, but he loves to watch himself,” said Sakib, whose son’s belly-dancing video has had 200 views online.
But if you think that handing an expensive piece of technology to a drooling toddler with chubby hands and unrefined motor skills seems counterproductive to keeping your iPhone alive, well, you might be in the minority.
According to “iLearn,” a report released last November by the Joan Ganz Cooney Center at Sesame Workshop, nearly half of the 100 top-selling applications from the iPhone App Store education section were targeted at preschool or elementary school children, and 60 percent of the 25 top-selling apps were targeted at toddlers or preschoolers.
Tech-savvy parents have learned they can empower themselves by picking and choosing the type of media they want to expose their children to.
Tell that to Inbal Brener, a busy mom who invites the innovative help into her home. The 36-year-old cellist is mother of 5-year-old Ariel and 3 1/2-year-old twins Shira and Joseph. Brener uses YouTube as a creative way to integrate the Hebrew language into her children’s lives.
She also lets her kids play games on her iPhone but is very conscious of how they spend time watching YouTube. Because she sits with her children and controls the computer, the only problem, she says, is “you don’t get any time for yourself, because you have to keep clicking for the next video.”
But not all parents are as eager to embrace YouTube’s possibilities for their children.
Though Alison Guiar is aware of YouTube’s educational potential — she has found instructional origami videos that her youngest daughter enjoyed — she is simply too wary of the site to allow her two girls, ages 7 and 11, to explore it alone, and she limits their computer time to school-related activities.
Guiar’s concern is why sites like Totlol.com were created.
Totlol is a kid-friendly, community-moderated site that allows parents to benefit from a like-minded community that moderates the site’s content. Ron Ilan, 39, the site’s designer and father of a 4-year-old boy and 2-year-old girl, said, “This results in a selection that is appropriate, relevant and unrestrictive. It also empowers parents.”
Ilan’s kids have a laptop much older than both of them that they use to view his site. He uses the site’s optimized interface to choose age-appropriate videos. His kids will request themes like “princess” and “snowboard,” and he’ll just let them explore by themselves.
Ilan thinks his site has much to offer children by way of providing accessible YouTube content but says he sees that his kids have some interesting expectations from technology that have yet to be met. “They assume that any screen is by default a touch-screen. Or that Mom’s Android-based phone will have the same drawing application as Dad’s iPod Touch,” he said.
And most interesting, “they also expect everything to be on demand. After not watching a regular TV channel for a few months, my son was actually surprised that the ‘TV changed the video by itself.’”
One perk of YouTube for parents is the nostalgia factor. Rick Krasner of White Plains, N.Y., searches YouTube to find some of his favorite music for his 3-year-old daughter, Kimberley. The title-insurance salesman gets a kick out of knowing that his little girl likes singing along to Black Sabbath and Frank Zappa.
And as more parents turn to the Internet to entertain and educate their children, more niche video sites like Jitterbug.tv keep popping up.
Dan Gellert, a Grammy Award-winning audio engineer and producer, launched the site in 2008 with friend Randall Green to make it easy for parents to find handpicked, nonirritating and appropriate tunes and music videos for their kids. Jitterbug not only lets Mom and Dad be music snobs but also lets them rest assured that their kids aren’t going to stumble onto something they shouldn’t see.
But experts say that just because the content is controlled doesn’t mean children should be watching it. The American Academy of Pediatrics strongly recommends that children under the age of 2 be exposed to no screen time. And iPhone Apps and YouTube videos definitely count as screen time, says Carly Shuler, author of the Cooney Center’s report.
Shuler says that even as more content is becoming available on the iPhone for young children, whether it’s actually a good idea to hand a child an iPhone is up to the parent.
The report’s finding that so many apps are available for users so young surprised her because “it’s not a device for children, and not many kids have their own. I think it’s something I call the ‘pass back’ effect, where parents pass them to their kids. I was surprised because parents were purchasing these apps, and because they are actually buying them, it means they are really encouraging this kind of use.”
How wired a parent wants a kid to be is a personal decision, but Daniel Klein, a psychologist and the director of the Child and Family Solutions Center in Farmington Hills, Mich., says he doesn’t see a whole lot of benefit in letting toddlers use YouTube or iPhone apps.
Klein says toddlers learn best through random exploration and spontaneous interaction with others, so putting them in front of something structured like a computer doesn’t help them develop properly.
“When they are at the computer with a program like YouTube, they don’t have to wait, and that’s not healthy,” he said. “You are shaping their behavior to expect what they want right at that moment.”