Updated: October 3, 2012 6:08AM
Breakfast with grandma and grandpa was going wonderfully. My two sons discussed their recent haircuts, the start of school and swimming at the public pool. I merely moderated the conversation.
Then my 6-year-old boy slyly asked for grandma’s smartphone. She obliged. Within minutes, my 4-year-old son followed suit, asking for grandpa’s phone. Bubba and Peter navigated the touch screens and soon both were engrossed in separate games of Angry Birds.
Conversation came to an abrupt halt — my previously talkative sons silenced by the 4-inch screens.
I wasn’t upset. I was curious. I see parents regularly handing their smartphones to children. I’ve done it myself, often using the technology to buy me a few minutes of peace at the airport or in the dentist’s waiting room.
It’s scary how well this works. Bubba and Peter can downshift from bonkers to a state of mild sedation within seconds of launching a game app on my iPhone.
It works so well that I wondered about the ramifications of using my phone to placate my children. This led me to Chip Donohue, director of the Erikson Institute’s Technology in Early Childhood Center in Chicago.
“IPhones have gotten a bad rap because of the pass-back effect,” Donohue said last week from his office at the graduate school in childhood development.
However, he went on to say that smartphones are simply the latest item parents are “passing back” to their children. Before phones, it was comic books, crayons or Walkman cassette players.
“This is not new. This is as old as time,” Donohue said, saying such pass-backs allow parents an opportunity to shower, load the dishwasher or simply enjoy 5 minutes of peace.
One difference with smartphones is the allure of the device. As evidenced by my recent breakfast, unveiling a smartphone can alter the dynamic of a situation. Sometimes this is a welcome change, like when a phone is used to pacify cranky kids on a road trip. But other times smartphones change the dynamic for the worse, like when excited, interactive children are transformed into touch-screen zombies when a smartphone is introduced on Christmas morning.
“It’s only when technology gets in the way of human relationships — that’s when I get concerned,” Donohue said.
He added that critics have pointed to smartphones, video games and computers when citing the increase in childhood obesity rates. Feelings of isolation and social incompetence have also been blamed on these solitary devices.
However, Donohue disputed such claims. He said reading a book is also a solitary act, and nobody ever blames obesity or loneliness on libraries. That’s not to say reading a book and twiddling on a smartphone offer the same cognitive benefits. Rather both pastimes offer equal levels of physical and social activity.
So parents shouldn’t feel guilty about passing back their smartphone, so long as it’s done in moderation. Donohue also suggested engaging children playing on your phone. He encouraged parents to ask questions about the game or take turns playing with their child.
“I think it is all about balance,” he said.
Speaking of balance, I’ve been stuck on one level of Angry Birds for more than a week. I just can’t manage to topple the pigs’ stone fortress. Maybe if I keep passing back my phone, Bubba and Pete will figure it out.
Howard A. Ludwig is a former SouthtownStar business writer who traded his reporter’s notebook for a diaper bag, becoming a stay-at-home dad. He can be reached at email@example.com.