Cyber Tots: Going Online While Still Wearing Diapers

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Cyber Tots: Going Online While Still Wearing Diapers

Anybody who has seen toddlers around computers knows that they take to the machines like moths to lights. Many tots play computer games before they read books, and some primary school children can maneuver around monitors better than their teachers.

But what's the right age for kids to start using computers? Until recently, the consensus among most software designers was at least 5 years old. But now many experts are saying the age floor should be dropped to as low as 9 months, while some academic experts are warning that hitching kids to computers too early can be harmful.

Some preschool education software teaches basic English as well as Korean skills; also on shelves are pointing devices made for hands too small for a regular computer mouse.

The era of "digital kids," who become computer whizzes before they can read, is just about upon us. The movement is especially swift here in Korea, which is notorious for educating kids to the bursting point, with the advent of high-speed Internet lines nationwide and a household computer ownership rate of 75 percent.

"I bought my child a CD-ROM for babies because he tried to mimic me whenever he saw me working on the computer," said an office worker from Seoul, Choi Jin-ung, referring to his 22-month-old son Min-Seok. "At first he didn't know how to click the mouse, but he got the hang of it in just a few days." As Mr. Choi spoke, Min-seok laughed at an animated character speaking to him from the computer screen.

Such interactivity is one edge computers have over picture books. Being able to respond to prompts is what draws many kids to computers.

A housewife from Seoul, Kim Yun-hee, uses Web sites to teach the Korean alphabet to her daughter Seongjin, 4. "I think it's better for kids to learn through sounds than through things like flashcards," Ms. Kim said.

The recent growth in marketing software for babies correlates closely with the burgeoning desire to teach them English. Pre-school education CD-ROMs from Britain and America are big sellers here. Also, Web sites that offer storytelling and nursery rhymes in English are getting more popular.

But even in the midst of the kids-on-computers craze are dissenting voices. "Computers can be overstimulating for babies," said Han Min-jwa, the owner of a Web site, CDsarang, which sells early education software. "Infancy is a time for babies to explore their surroundings and learn to trust people. But using computers at such a young age can disturb their bonding with people."

A professor at Yonsei University, Shin Ui-jin, is opposed to preschool education in general and early computer education in particular. "Forcing babies to learn how to use a computer is not the same as letting them seek out their own interests," Mr. Shin said.

Those in favor of preschool education say that it's futile to deny how the world is changing, pointing out that computers and English books are already in kindergarten and primary school classrooms. "There's nothing wrong with babies learning how to use computers," said Shin Su-yeong, who runs an early education Web site. "The problem is parents who force their kids to use software that is beyond their abilities."

The owner of a firm that makes software for kids, Lee In-beom, implied that parents should be careful not to treat computers like a baby-sitter. "Parents should be around when their children are on the computer and help them use it properly," he said.

by Park Hye-min

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