We’ve all done it.

You’re in line at the grocery store, and despite having 15 lanes available, only three are open. Your toddler is screaming, your baby is opening bags and crunching on uncooked macaroni, and in a panic you whip out your iPhone and say, “Here! Who wants to play a game?”

No? Only me?

I admit I’ve placed myself in the “I would never do that” category several times since becoming a mother. When I first purchased my iPhone, I was asked if I wanted to get insurance for the phone for around a hundred dollars more. I politely told him I was barely choking down the price for the phone alone, and what did I need insurance for?

“You know — if your kid is playing with it and drops it or something.”

Ha! My children will never play with my phone, I thought. I did, however, purchase a very durable rubber cover for it. For my sake.

Over the next few weeks of giddy iPhone exploration, I decided to download a Thomas the Train app for my 3-year-old son. I thought he might like playing around with it while we’re in the car, or heaven forbid we have another bad grocery shopping day, etc. Well, one app led to 15 and the next thing I knew, I had two little boys drooling over my shoulder asking, “Has it downloaded yet?”

I caved.

I didn’t see too much harm in letting my little ones tinker around on my phone until a few weeks ago, when my oldest made his little brother cry. My husband knelt down next to our son and said, “Boston, when you take toys away from your brother, it makes Daddy angry.”

He looked up at my husband wide-eyed and in all seriousness said, “Yeah. Like ‘Angry Birds’?”

Hmm. That started me on an all-hands-on-deck search to answer the question I had burning in the back of my mind since I saw my 18-month-old turn on my phone all by himself:

How much is too much?

I came across a great article in the New York Times written by Hilary Stout back in October of 2010 called “Toddlers Favorite Toy: the iPhone.”

Stout talks about this wonderful device and the amazing innate ability children of this generation seem to have in operating such new technology. However, she also states the dangers of young ones becoming overly consumed with it — and parents unwisely using it as a babysitter.

What is happening to the child’s perception of the real world while they’re engrossed in a virtual one?

Tovah P. Klein, the director of Columbia University’s Barnard Collage Center for Toddler Development, says, “Children at this age are so curious and they’re observing everything. If you’re engrossed in this screen you’re not seeing or observing or taking it in.”

Jane M. Healy, an educational psychologist in Vail, Colo., said, “What children need at that age is whole body movement, the manipulation of lots of objects and not some opaque technology. You’re not learning to read by lining up the letters in the word ‘cat.’ You’re learning to read by understanding language, by listening. Here’s the parent busily doing something and the kid is playing with the electronic device. Where is the language? There is none.”

I agree wholeheartedly with the professionals. And while the American Academy of Pediatrics hasn’t come out with an official statement on how much is too much for toddlers, they maintain the same guidelines for iPhones as they do TV, strongly discouraging phone play for children ages 2 and younger, and encouraging interactive play.

Despite taking advantage of the many apps designed for children and having let both my children play with my phone every now and then, I have set some ground rules. My 3-year-old is only allowed to play at certain times of the day, for around 10 minutes at a time. He can play one game of “Cars 2” or do one puzzle, or try to complete one level of “Angry Birds.”

My younger one, thankfully, isn’t all that interested — yet. If we’re in the car for a long ride, he may take it and play for a minute or two, but he’s mostly fascinated with taking off the cover and pushing the Siri button.

Bottom line: I believe in “moderation in all things” and that childhood is a fleeting moment best spent exploring real life with real people. But for those “I’m-going-crazy-and-everyone-around-me-is-too” moments when you’re thanking heaven for your iPhone, here’s a list of great apps I’ve found for kids:

“Duck Duck Moose: Wheels on the Bus” and “Musical Me” — These apps are very music-oriented (3 years and up). Children can create their own songs, solve musical puzzles, and turn the wheels on the bus while learning melodies and practicing memorization.

2 comments on this story

“Make it Pop” — This is a really fun app for young children (18 months and older) where you can pop popcorn, pop bubbles, pop bubble gum and pop fireworks-all while learning numbers, letters, shapes and colors.

“Nighty Night” — A beautifully designed, quiet interactive app where you have to go around the farm and turn off the lights in the stable, house, barn, fish tank, etc. My kids like to do this one before bedtime.

My 3-year-old also likes the “Cars 2” app, but this one is designed to be more of a video game. I’m not as crazy about this one, mainly because I think it’s a lot of “dead brain” time. He usually plays this with the sound off, and again, only for 10 minutes at a time.

Carmen Rasmusen Herbert is a former "American Idol" contestant who writes about entertainment and family for the Deseret News.