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The Digital Childhood

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Four-year-old New Yorker Jenny Lieber was sprawled across the seat of the M104 bus headed downtown in full winter regalia, including a wool bunny cap with its ears perked up that covered much of her curly brown tresses. In her right hand was an iPhone tilted in landscape mode while she fingered the controls with her left hand.

"What is she doing?" I asked.

"She's watching a movie," her nanny said.

Little Jenny's gaze fastened on me as any sensible person would when being talked about as if she wasn't present, and without a word, she returned to her movie. "She not only watches movies, she really knows how to use it," her nanny said.

Eli Barnstein, 5, lost his iPhone last year and has moved on to the iPad that his grandmother bought for him.

"My friend gave him her old iPhone and she put applications on it for him. He played with it, he loved it, and he lost it," said his mother, Missy Barnstein, 36. "My mom, who runs a nursing school in Maryland bought him an iPad and put education apps on it because she said a lot of the parents there have bought one for their kids," Barnstein said.

Eli says, "I like the iPad better than the iPhone because it makes everything bigger."

Today's children are more digitally attuned to their world than previous generations, which is causing some concern among parents about how to manage their children's use of these digital toys. Technology has changed what it means to be a parent raising children today, according to recent studies. Children are now growing up in an environment that would likely be unrecognizable to their parents. But parents are also devising ways to use these devices to improve learning.

"The smart phone and the computer are increasingly taking the place of the TV as an education and entertainment tool for children," said J.R. Smith, CEO of Internet Security Company AVG, whose Digital Diaries series, Digital Birth, is examining how children's interaction with technology has changed. "Our research shows that parents need to begin educating children about safely navigating the online world at a much earlier age."

In a new Digital Diaries study released in January, AVG found that small children are more likely to know how use a computer mouse, play a computer game, and increasingly, operate a smart phone than they know how to tie their own shoes, or learn how to swim.

The latest study also found that there is no technology gender divide between young boys and girls. As many boys, 58 percent, as girls, 59 percent, can play a computer game; and 28 percent of boys, and 29 percent of girls can make a mobile phone call. The study polled 2,200 mothers with Internet access and with children aged 2-5 in the U.S., Canada, the U.K., France, Italy, Germany, Spain, Japan, Australia and New Zealand.

Parents of newborns and toddlers know that their children are being digitized at a very early age. For instance, when do those childhood memories first appear on Facebook?

An AVG Digital Diaries study released in October 2010 shows that 33% of children have had images posted online from birth, and that 23% of children have had their pre-birth scans uploaded to the Internet by their parents. Astonishingly, 7% of babies have had an email address created for them by their parents.

Parents are certainly aware that they need to monitor and regulate their children's technology use. First Lady Michelle Obama said this week that 12 year-old Malia and nine year-old Sasha don't have a Facebook account. "(I'm) not a big fan of young kids having Facebook," she said. "It's not something they need."

Many parents share the First Lady's view.

"Our kids are the least tech-savvy of all their friends, and it's deliberate," said Sree Sreenivasan, 40, Dean of Student Affairs and digital media professor at the Columbia Graduate School of Journalism. Sreenivasan, the father of seven year-old twins, Durga and Krishna, specializes in explaining technology to consumers, readers, viewers and users.

"When we are together we might go on YouTube, and they have a Wii, which they love, and they play, but they don't have a (Nintendo) DS hand-held unit. They're not on Facebook, they don't have a blog or an e-mail address, and a lot of their friends do. The result is that they will read more, and they know that eventually they will be able to use and play with all of these things," Sreenivasan said.

Barnstein said she tries to breakdown the time that Eli spends on his iPad. "I don't worry that he's using his iPad too much. We play a lot of board games. And if I ask for help with something and he helps me, I'll say OK, I'll buy you an app," Barnstein said. "All of his apps are strictly educational. Some are games, but a lot of them are Nickelodeon or Magic School Bus. He can also watch is favorite TV shows on his iPad."

Bill Hartnett, 48, says he's had his iPad for a year and enjoys sharing it with his eight-year-old son, Cole, and his five-year-old daughter, Tatum. "I think it's an attractive and inviting platform that kids naturally want to play with and you can covertly sneak a little learning in on it," Hartnett said.

"The iPad is used as a reward, the same as watching TV. I really limit it," he said. "My son loves his iPad time. He and his sister get a half-hour to an hour a day total of TV, Wii or iPad. I try to make sure that most of their experiences are offline, like reading, playing, and talking to others."

Hartnett said his son, Cole, has dyslexia and he has found that the iPad is helping him to learn and improve his motor skills.

"He has blossomed after using it," said Hartnett. "His progress is also attributable to good teaching, but using the iPad has helped him to become much more focused. He has developed strategies to play games, and he's become analytical in how to run his favorite app, Zombie Farm. The iPad offers children sure enjoyment, and it requires dexterity and finger skills. Cole has become an iPad wizard."