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The Littlest Surfers: How preschoolers use the internet, and how to keep them safe online

Dylan Masamitsu of Manhattan can navigate her father’s iPhone with a masterful finger swipe, and she shows impressive multi-touch screen control. She can match cats to cats and dog to dogs on Jirbo Match, and flip between categories of games whenever and wherever she and her dad, Merv Garretson, happen to be around town.

Not bad for someone who’s nearly, but not yet, three.

At home, Dylan goes on the computer to surf YouTube for funny videos (animals mostly) and clips of some of her favorite TV shows (Dora and Diego). She also plays a variety of online games, and almost, but not quite, can manipulate the computer mouse herself. For this she still needs her dad. “But, she’s almost there,” he says.

Little little kids going digital has become an increasingly familiar tale, the subject of parental bragging rights and a mini-genre of strangely compelling YouTube videos of chubby hands having their way with sleek technology. In the process, it’s become a hot button issue. How much is too much tech time for a child five or under? And, at what cost? More broadly, What role do these technologies play in our young kids’ lives? Entertainer? Educator? Babysitter? Marketer? All of the above?

“We’re at a transitional moment,” says Warren Buckleitner, editor of Children’s Technology Review and author of a recent study on young children’s tech habits. “It used to be there were two main platforms for technology, Mac and Windows. Now, there are over twenty, including Nintendo DS and Wii that kids as young as two-and-a-half can play,” he explained. “Kids are surrounded by screens in a way like never before, at home, in their pockets, in the minivan, and they know how to use them at younger and younger ages.”

While he believes access to technology can make our kids smarter and prepare them for many educational and social challenges ahead, he adds a caveat: Parents must be a part of it.

“If you’re going to allow your kid to go to a website or play a game, you have to first check it out yourself,” he said. “Think about it, you don’t let your child eat a meal you’ve never tasted before.”

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