ONCE upon a time, they would have played with train sets, dolls and cuddly toys. Today’s toddlers, however, are more likely to be playing with an iPad - and are becoming adept at using the internet long before they start school.

Nearly half of three- and four-year-olds are now technologically-savvy, a report by media watchdog Ofcom revealed yesterday. And one in ten is already using an iPad to visit websites, watch films and television programmes and play games.

The report marks the first time the regulator has looked at the habits of the pre-school age group - and the findings prompted experts to warn parents not to use computers and tablets as ‘virtual babysitters’.

The study also found that under-13s, many of whom are too young to legitimately register for social networks without parental consent, are befriending strangers on these websites. Cyber-bullying also emerged as a persistent problem, with more girls than boys being targeted.

As part of the study, researchers interviewed 200 families with children aged three and four. They found 37 per cent of these children used the internet via a PC or laptop - and 3 per cent even surfed the web using a mobile phone.

The youngsters also watched around 15.5 hours of television a week and spent 6.2 hours a week playing games online - but no figures were collected for the time they spent surfing the web.

Claudio Pollack of Ofcom warned: ‘Children are not just using more media, they are also adopting some forms at a very young age.

‘This highlights the challenge that some parents face in keeping up with their children when it comes to technology and in understanding what they can do to protect children.’

Child psychologist Dr Linda Papadopoulos urged parents to supervise children when they are using the web and to allow internet use only ‘in moderation’.

She added: ‘Children need balance. Using games and websites online can stimulate younger children. There are some wonderful learning tools out there.

‘But it comes down to supervising what they are doing. We know it is bad to dump children in front of the TV. It is going to be the same with computers and tablets. Parents shouldn’t use the internet as a virtual babysitter. Parents must make sure they are aware of what their children are looking at.’

Ofcom also polled 1,700 children on their use of social networking sites and found that many are still chatting to strangers online, despite a number of campaigns warning of the dangers.

Under-13s, many of whom are supposedly too young to sign up without parental consent, are managing to find their way on to these sites and befriending people they do not know.

The report found that 22 per cent of eight- to 11-year-olds have a social networking profile and have typically amassed 92 friends - but 12 per cent of these are people they have never met.

The figure rises for those in their early teens, with 80 per cent saying they have a social networking profile with an average of 286 friends. Shockingly, among 12- to 15-year-olds up to a quarter of these ‘friends’ are strangers.

The report also warned that advances in online gaming meant it was possible for children to be contacted by strangers from around the world.

It found that one in three boys in their early teens admitted playing games online with people who are not known to them.

Cyber-bullying remains a problem, with one in ten internet users aged 12 to 15 saying they have experienced it in the past year.

Around 13 per cent of girls this age have personal experience of being bullied online, compared to five per cent of boys.

Ofcom’s report said that almost half of parents admitted their ‘child knew more about the internet’ then they did, adding: ‘Lack of confidence in using the internet is an issue for a number of parents.’

Daily Mail