An argument for adding a “child mode” to cell phones, and why it hasn’t been done yet.

I’ll bet I’m not the only parent in the world with a cell phone-obsessed toddler. For this early adopter (i.e., under 2) set, toy cell phones just don’t cut it. The novelty wears off quickly, and besides, they’re not objects from the Parent World (as The Little Mermaid’s Neptune would say), and hence are less exciting to play with.

But why shouldn’t today’s cell phones also be toys? They’re already cameras, MP3 players, and game machines. Given the place they play in the lives of parents of small children, it would make sense to create a “child mode” for cell phones. In this imagined child mode, you can’t place a call, or access any of the programmable features (call lists, etc.). What you can do is press the keys, hear crazy sounds, and watch stuff light up; for older toddlers you might have programs that sound out the numbers when pressed, or played simple math games (“Elmo says, ‘Find the number 4’!”).

Once the child is old enough to get over their case of Obsessive Parental Phone Disorder, parents could delete child mode– and think about getting them their own phones. For phone companies, child mode could be yet another content stream, like downloadable ring tones and games. Few things drive parents nuts faster than the sound of toys playing the same tune over and over again (and over and over and over!): updated tones, and new packages of music and pictures, would be a no-brainer. The other great virtue of child mode is that it would help children become accustomed to thinking of cell phones as… well, something more than phones. If you start playing with something at two, learn your numbers on it at three, play with Cookie Monster on it at four, and are taking pictures with it at five, you’re going to think about it as something more than just a communications device. And that perception isn’t going to go away.

This wouldn’t involve much in the way of physical or mechanical design. You might want to make sure the phone is saliva-resistant, and the display is hard to damage, but otherwise this is a matter of software– or a matter of creating software that accomodates one of the functions that cell phones owned by young parents already play.

Come to think of it, remote controls should have a child mode, too. (Can you change the programming in a remote control?) In fact, any handheld device that has a keypad should be designed with the expectation that it’s going to be attractive to a 2 year-old.

Why doesn’t this already exist?

One of the great design principles of modernism was that “form follows function.” It was as much a prescription as a declaration: in an age of Art Nouveau and overwrought academic neoclassicism, the claim that form should reflect function was a radical one. In the late 1970s, though, the microprocessor began to change the equation, by creating the possibility of splitting a product’s function from its physical form and mechanical operation. You could build new functions into objects (programmability in kitchen appliances, for example); you could design objects with the aim of making them more ergonomic and user-friendly; or you could take traditional objects and design them to be used in new contexts (e.g., calculators on your watch or in your checkbook).

Objects don’t just have physical limitations; their histories or evolutionary paths also constrain the ways that engineers and companies think about them. When my generation was growing up, phones were not things that children could play with: the risk of accidentally calling Iceland or Australia was too great. Early cell phones were also too fragile and expensive to put in little hands. The fact that they were often marketed as productivity-enhancing business tools for the busy executive on the go meant that a new generation of parents could say, “The phone is not a toy”– about a whole new kind of phone.

This is changing, as phone companies work to turn phones into game platforms, entertainment platforms, and cameras. All these are great. But paying attention to the ways cell phones are really used by young families– and in particular, who it is in those families who are most interested in the phones– would reveal this basic fact: For little kids, everything, especially everything handheld and electronic, is already a toy. Companies ought to recognize that, and use it.