Zacharie Bishop wriggled around in his booster seat, gawking at the flurry of activity around him at a Vancouver restaurant.
As the two-year-old repeatedly stood up and sat back down, his mother, nibbling on an order of French toast, tried to distract him with crayons and scribble pad. No dice.
"Hey, do you want to watch a cartoon or play a game?" his father, Buzz Bishop, recounts asking.
"Yeah!" Zacharie chirped.
And then, as Mr. Bishop had done countless times before, he whipped out his iPhone and handed it to the toddler.
With ease, Zacharie used his nimble little fingers to navigate his way into the National Film Board application and play The Cat Came Back video. Captivated by the animation, he sat quietly in an iTrance for the rest of the meal.
"You don't want to do the screen time, but restaurants with two-year-olds are nasty if the food's not there in four minutes," said Mr. Bishop.
Where puzzles, books and analog toys fail, the iPhone has become the best on-the-go pacifier for a new legion of tech-savvy parents. The market has grown quickly: Four of the top 10 best-selling education apps in the iTunes store are designed for under-4s.
Mr. Bishop and other iParents have faced judgment from those who opt for more traditional (and far cheaper) toys for their children, and advocacy groups, concerned about the rapid technologization of childhood.
But there are also positive verdicts: Some researchers laud iPhones as "any time, anywhere" educational tools. And they can be useful distractions for harried parents.
In 2006, WestEd, a non-profit educational research centre based in San Francisco, equipped 80 parents of three- and four-year-olds with mobile phones loaded with literacy-themed video lessons in a PBS KIDS-commissioned study. For eight weeks, the children were taught the alphabet from a mobile-screen-sized Elmo and parents were asked to watch 26 corresponding "literacy tips" for incorporating learning about the alphabet at home. After the study's completion, more than three-quarters of parents said that mobile devices could be used as effective learning tools to a "good extent" or "great extent."
Participants repeatedly praised the portability of the application, said Jodie Hoffman, a research assistant at WestEd. Parents with full-time jobs and a household to run sometimes don't have the luxury of sitting down at home for a dedicated hour of one-on-one time with their kid.
"To have it on a medium that is with them all the time, with a program that they have faith in [was key]" said Ms. Hoffman.
When Alexandra Samuel decided to upgrade to a new iPhone, she handed down her old model to her three-year-old son and six-year-old daughter. But the Vancouver mom is a little nervous about the optics of equipping her offspring with such a flashy gadget.
"I've told [my daughter]to tell people she has an iPod Touch because [the phone]it sounds ridiculously indulgent. I'm self-conscious about people thinking I bought my daughter a $600 device." (The iPod Touch runs from about $200 to $400, not exactly cheap either.) But she says the iPhone is actually a more economical tool for kids since almost all the apps she gets for her three-year-old are either free or only a dollar, whereas many console games can cost upwards of $30.
"I thought, 'Wow, how much of a sucker would I have to be to buy a console where the games have zero educational value in most cases?" she said. But some experts say that whether on the iPhone or on a console, the benefits of electronic games can be over-hyped.
While the iTunes store is brimming with thousands of apps that claim to teach toddlers to read, write and count, pediatrician Dimitri Christakis is skeptical about their effectiveness.
"The simple fact that there are letters on the screen doesn't mean that they will teach your child letters," said Dr. Christakis, director for the Center for Child Health, Behavior and Development at the Seattle Children's Hospital.
He said there is no real harm in using the apps as tools of distraction or entertainment, but parents who are hoping their iPhone will magically turn their kids into geniuses should adjust their expectations.
"Do I think [these apps are]likely to make them smarter? No. And I think the concern is many of these things sell themselves as that."
Without any kind of certification seal to steer parents to the good and bad apps for their tykes, many have turned to Heather Leister - the unofficial expert on the topic.
In January, the stay-at-home mom of three from Boise, Idaho, launched theiphonemom.com, a website where she posts reviews of kid-focused apps daily. "The good [apps]are done by parents themselves," she said. "You can actually tell who has kids and who is in a cubicle without any real-world experience."
The dead giveaways? Any apps that have long-winded, written instructions. Or ones that may have flashy graphics, but aren't actually interactive.
The cause-and-effect appeal is what got her own son hooked, who was 4 when he first picked up her iPhone. One of his favourite apps lets him tape himself telling a story and then play back the recording, she said.
The interactivity is what Dr. Christakis said could make iPhone apps different from simply plunking a child down in front of a TV screen - though there has not yet been any significant research on the subject. And because iPhones are pricey, parents are probably more likely to be present when their three-year-old is using one - if for no other reason than to protect their precious gadgets, he said.
Ms. Samuel recalls Apple telling her that her warranty was void when she tried to get her iPhone repaired.
"My little drooly two-year-old had drooled into the moisture detector," she said. He hasn't dropped it yet, but there have been many close calls.
"I will often find him in the bathroom, peeing with the iPhone held over the toilet," she said.
Mr. Bishop says he is always within a few metres of Zacharie when he's using his iPhone. That closeness has inspired many tender father-son moments.
The first time he used the NFB app was to watch a Canadian classic - The Hockey Sweater - while Zacharie sat in his lap.
"I cried the first time I used it," he said. "I just leaned in his ear and I said, 'This is what it means to be Canadian.'"