Worries over teen and adult cyberaddiction may pale with what's ahead. Eleven of the top 25 best-selling preschool toys on Amazon.com last week were electronic, and the list included not only LeapFrog and Webkinz, the popular stuffed animals with an online component, but tot-friendly digital cameras and a toddler laptop.

The thing is that list only accounts for the toys. Many youngsters have the real thing, too.

According to a recent Advertising Age story, 40 percent of children ages 2 to 10 own an iPod or similar MP3 player. And cell phones, laptops, iPods and digital cameras were among the hottest gifts for the toddler set last holiday season.

Heather Gibbs Flett's 3-year-old son loves his Legos and trains, but Holden carries his digital camera everywhere. He takes a lot of pictures of the ground, his mother said, but he's delighted nonetheless. And his favorite activity is surfing the Net with Daddy, particularly if it involves YouTube videos about steam trains or musical instruments.

It's an age-old story: kids see their parents using something and they want it, too. Just look at the enduring appeal of mommy's car keys. (Now available in a high tech, beeping version, by the way.)

"They see us using electronics all the time," said Flett. "He figured out my iPhone was a phone and an iPod and a computer. He knows how to work the DVD player and the remote."

But it's the educational angle that appeals to parents.

"We can't be singing the ABCs constantly," said Flett.


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Whitney Moss' Berkeley home is filled with LeapFrog toys, hardly surprising considering that's where she worked before her two children were born. While 8-month-old Scarlett plays on an electronic learning table with a musical motif, big brother Julian uses a LeapPad that teaches phonics or goes online. The 3-year-old is adept with both a mouse and a touch pad.

"We worry about screen time," Moss said. "But with a computer, he's interacting with a set of skills that's necessary."

Julian's days are balanced with outdoor play, blocks and the traditional accouterments of toddlerhood, but those hours spent with his tech toys have the tot reading simple three-letter words two years ahead of schedule.

Few would deny the educational aspect, but the cybertoddler world is a rapidly expanding and commercial market. There are tens of thousands of toddler game sites, from Kneebouncers.com to BabyGamer.com. And Webkinz, the plush animals with the rabid following of a Cabbage Patch doll, giggling Elmo or Beanie Baby, are driving tots online by the million. The stuffed creatures, marketed for the 3-and-up crowd, come with passwords to gain entry to a Webkinz virtual world where kids can earn "cash" to buy Webkinz accessories or interact with fellow fans.

Parents may fret over online chat safety, but few people are talking about whether preschoolers belong online at all.

"That's a big market," said Larry Rosen, a psychology professor at California State University Dominguez Hills and author of "Me, MySpace and I: Parenting the Net Generation." "Those kids drive a lot of purchasing power, so there's a big push to get those kids online. Those kids are still developing their social skills and if they're spending hours online at three and four and five, you're really gearing them up for having a severe lack of social skills."

A Boston elementary school banned Webkinz last year, but it's parents who need to pay attention -- and do it significantly earlier, said Rosen, than grade school.

"It's so tempting to plop your kid in front of the computer," said Rosen. "But you have to balance your kid. At some point, their social life is going to move online and your guidance at the beginning is what's going to determine how they do later on."

Read more about toddlers and the tech scene on the aPARENTly Speaking blog at http://www.ibabuzz.com/aparentlyspeaking/.