Texting Toddlers

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Oh no. My son knows what a phone is. No, he really knows what it is. He has, within the past two weeks, grasped the functional concept of cell phone usage. I do not know if he fully understands I use a phone, or if he really gets that I am conversing with another human being remotely. If anything, it is a game for him: a manner of speaking that is a departure from the way he and I regularly converse.

It started with the case my phone came in. I don’t know where in the hellish mess (not my doing) of our apartment he managed to find the thing, but he put it to his ear, and promptly started chatting. He wasn’t speaking to me, but to an invisible friend of his own. I was shocked — such a performance from a sixteen month old is surely a rarity, and while I have long been aware of my son’s precocious tendencies, this one really got me.

A few days later, this boy genius of mine started doing the same thing with other objects. During a nasty bought of viral pink eye, he woke up in the middle of the night, screamingly inconsolable. He felt slightly warm, so I broke out a new thermometer. With a modern digital display and an “easy” forehead swipe apparatus, the thermometer was supposed to make taking a baby’s temperature hassle-free (lies). Instead of letting me mother him, he quacked his displeasure and snatched the device out of my hands. He immediately turned it on, and attempted to fidget with it in the same way that one texts and browses on a smart phone.

An attempt to introduce Dante to non-electronic grown-up materials (Photo by Virginia Petrucci)
An attempt to introduce Dante to non-electronic grown-up materials
(Photo by Virginia Petrucci)

Then, despite his fatigued and sickly state, he put it to his ear and started talking. He used the same voice as before — intentional yet trivial words of a role-play game; he was acting out a mommy activity.

Since then, he actively grabs cell phone-sized objects around the house, puts them to his ear, and starts babbling away, content in his own little world.

Dante has seen me use my iPhone for most of his life and while I do my very best to avoid any unnecessary preoccupation with it, I occasionally need to make phone calls and send emails and text messages because of my job. Sometimes this bugs him and I will stop unless it is absolutely necessary.

It is natural for a toddler to mimic his mother’s habits in an effort to understand the social roles and related behaviors of the people in his life. If mommy is on the phone, be it laughingly or not (most often not), it is obvious to him that I am doing something important. And so, he picks up my compact mirror and babbles away with tiny-person intentionality in one of the most adorable displays of imitation I have ever seen.

The unavoidable flooding of technological awareness into a young child’s developing mind is beyond concerning to me. If Dante is acute enough to establish the importance of phones and their related activities, then what else might he be picking up from the adults in his life? Just the other day, he stole a hair clip of mine and pinned it to his own head. I do not wear clips all that often, and haven’t done so for quite some time, so this belated mimicry only furthers evidence of my son’s brilliance.

The argument that past generations have grown up with a level of technological interaction that is comparable to today doesn’t really make sense to me. Television and landline phones are one thing, but portable, information-ready devices that can easily entrap one’s attention for hours on end is a very different story. Some members of Dante’s generation already have Instagram and Facebook accounts, and use smart phones and tablets on long car rides rather than reading books or playing “I Spy” (does slugbug, no backsees resonate with anyone?).

Many people shrug off my concern about Dante’s future being too entwined with technology as unavoidable. “That’s just how it’s going to be.” “They already have laptops in schools.” “Siri is your friend, do not dissent.”

There may be little I can do about my son’s exposure to technology as he gets older. By the time he’s in high school, social media classes may very well replace the already outdated shop and home economics classes of yester year. However, I refuse to surrender my resolve to avoid much of this at home.

The future of education? (Photo courtesy of mediacastblog.com)
The future of education?
(Photo courtesy of mediacastblog.com)

We do not watch TV everyday and I do not let my cell phone or computer take away from my much-treasured time with my son. This is not to say that parents who allow their children to engage age-inappropriate devices are horrible parents. I want my son to fit in with his peers and stay up to date with whatever wacky trends may befall his generation. But I do not want to compromise his intellectual drive, his social skills, or his physical health. The potential of cumulative physical harm — be it eye strain and poor vision, repetitive stress injuries, or a more serious reaction to the undoubtedly toxic nature of an excess of electromagnetic devices — is very likely.

There are many things I would rather my son emulate than cell phone conversations. He’s a great helper when it comes to housework, and while I know that he isn’t a trick pony, I can get him to do some pretty cute stuff such as blowing kisses, making a fish face, and giving high fives. And if my son takes his hairclip habit to a new level of lipstick and dresses, then I won’t ask questions—just as long as he doesn’t broadcast it on Instagram.