My Child Loves the Cell Phone — Did I Do Something Wrong?

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POPSUGAR Photography | Levi Mandel
POPSUGAR Photography | Levi Mandel

There's a moment in your journey as a parent where you stop devouring round-the-clock information related to your child's impending safety (i.e. "is my child getting enough breastmilk"), and your fears hop from health to behavioral. While they're both equally important — they go hand in hand — it was sometime around the 14-month mark when I noticed my daughter's curiosity peak significantly, and my priorities shifted from being ALL about her safety to straddling both. Now I needed to ensure I was wholly committed to cultivating a healthy environment for her to foster confidence and a desire to learn.

But I noticed one thing routinely happening: every morning during what I believed to be a prosperous routine of milk drinking and book reading, she'd scoot away from me and beeline for the old iPhone plugged in near her bed, which functioned solely as her white-noise machine. She loved pushing buttons and seeing things flash across the screen more than anything else I could entertain her with. As the parent, I wondered, did she see me on my cell phone? I'd say half the time in the morning when I hadn't had my coffee and wasn't ready to fully engage, I'd be scrolling. But, before you slam me, I'd hide my phone behind a pillow. So she may not see mommy's hands, but at least she wouldn't know there was a phone there.

But at 16 months now, she still has a knack for identifying cell phones and laptops, and getting to them becomes her top priority. Is this entirely my fault? I enlisted the expertise of Michele Borba, EdD, parenting expert and author of UnSelfie: Why Empathetic Kids Succeed in Our All About Me World, to find out whether or not it's OK to let our children play with cell phones and if we should feel bad about what's happening. The first thing she shared was that we shouldn't beat ourselves up. "Ease the guilt: young children know more than we give them credit for. They learn quickly and through experimentation," she explains. So if you're curious as I was about why they gravitate toward a real cell phone over, say, a toy one, it's not necessarily because you've done something wrong. "They recognize that the real cell phone has a lot more 'bells and whistles' than the toy."

Your child likes to play with cell phones — now what?

All is not lost, says Dr. Borba, but see if you can introduce similar toys that are more appropriate. "Toddlers are inquisitive, and they don't need electronic devices to have fun. Check the toy-store aisle for colorful toddler toys that have buttons and gadgets and make sounds or light up when touched or shaken." Want specifics? Fisher-Price Bright Beats Dance and Move BeatBo, SkipHop Egg Shakers, and Munchkin Mozart Magic Cube are fun."

What to do if your child uses a phone as a coping mechanism?

While I don't ever hand my daughter phones to play with, I'll admit that following a bad bump recently — she's still mastering walking — after a number of mommy hugs and kisses weren't soothing her, nor did looking at interesting plants outside, I handed her the white noise/cell phone. It worked like a charm. But is this something I should do again? The answer isn't so easy. "It could [become a bad behavior], only because your child is learning to rely on the phone as her 'coping strategy,' and it then becomes a habit," Dr. Borba says. "I'd suggest looking for a substitute now — anything that is handy, she enjoys, and can do alone to soothe her."

While my child isn't old enough to understand how phones work — it's just a thing with buttons and a bright screen — it's clear that it could become a problem down the line. First step might be for me to get her a real sound machine and get rid of the phone in her room.

Do children know when we're on our phones?

It turns out my idea to hide my phone behind a pillow wasn't so terrible. "Hiding our phones is a great idea or just plain limiting the use when our kids are around. Just be aware that our preschoolers clearly say that we use them too much and prefer that we put them away," Dr. Borba advises. Do you find that you're actually talking on the phone or regularly scrolling in front of your child? If you don't want them to mimic you, you might want to curb the habit. "The questions to ask yourself: Is your child really unaware of what you're doing? And how long are you on your phone? We're finding more toddlers picking up the behavior from their parents."