Look around the next time you're in a kid-crowded mall or schoolyard. Technology is everywhere: a laptop balanced on the spindly knees of a 10-year-old, a cell phone nestled in the pocket of a second-grader's hoodie. Depending on your parenting style, these sights might make you ask yourself "Are these kids really ready for all these gadgets?" or you may think "Maybe I should get my kid to do that."
Exactly when to introduce your children to different types of technology has become an essential question of digital-age parenting, so we consulted a group of experts from both the medical and the tech worlds in search of advice. They tend to agree that, because kids develop at varying rates, you can't pin the answers to a specific age. But there are some key traits that may signal when they're ready to start living a wired existence -- and some products especially designed to ease them in.
- Allison Druin, Ph.D., director of the Human-Computer Interaction Lab at the University of Maryland
- Michael Osit, Ed.D., psychologist and author of Generation Text
- Andy Petroski, director of learning technologies at Harrisburg University of Science and Technology
- Michael Rich, M.D., director of the Center on Media and Child Health at Children's Hospital Boston
- Karin Vander Ploeg Booth, M.D., developmental and behavioral pediatrician at the University of Chicago Medical Center
Feel free to gift a camera to even the teeniest of artistes. That's because it's a gadget without content of its own. "Nothing offensive is going to accidentally pop up," says Karin Vander Ploeg Booth, M.D. But if anything inappropriate does result, it'll probably be your kid's work. So keep the USB cable tucked away. If she wants to put photos online, you'll be there to ooh and aah -- and, if necessary, ugh! -- over each one.
Click n' Create, by LeapFrog: Stunningly lightweight, with an easy-grip plastic casing that will keep it safe when it inevitably slips out of little hands. Plus, it talks. Video-editing software allows kids to be creative with pics they've uploaded to the family computer. $50, Ages 4 to 8
Kidizoom, by VTech: A bit bulky, but definitely sturdy. Fun, goofy editing software lets you trick out your photos right on the camera. And it records surprisingly awesome video. $60, Ages 5 to 9
LEGO Digital Camera: Terrific picture quality, especially for a camera made of little toy blocks. Five buttons take care of everything. This is a wonderful, simple camera for kids who just want to take good photos. $60, Ages 6 to 12
U-Turn Digital Camera: Finally, kids can do what they've always really wanted to: take shots of themselves. The lens pivots 180 degrees to the same side as the LCD screen, for perfect self-portraits. Great quality, too. $50, Ages 7 to 14
Simply owning a computer won't hurt the smallest babe, but spending unlimited hours on it, surfing unsupervised, or e-meeting strangers might. "When you type in 'Cinderella,' it's not always Disney that's going to come up," points out Dr. Vander Ploeg Booth. Whether your kid is 6 or 16, before you buy, be sure you have the time to oversee her use -- something a good set of parental controls can help you with.
Disney Netpal, by ASUS: Kids get a neat, customizable Disney desktop and browser; parents get complete control over the computer. In order for any program to be used, any website to be visited, any address to be e-mailed, the administrator (i.e., Mom or Dad) has to white-list it. The whole experience looks so cool that young kids are unlikely to be deterred by parental censorship. $350, Ages 5 to 12
HP Mini 210: A triple-divided home page makes navigation super simple, allowing easy access to your three basic computing food groups: web, e-mail, and media. $280, Ages 10 and up
Lenovo IdeaPad S10-3: Pleasantly lightweight, with the kind of funky cover pattern that makes tweens squeal with delight. A "quick start" feature allows access to files, pics, and games without having to wait through that boring boot-up. Multiple users can log in with face-recognition software. $359, Ages 8 and up
Toshiba NB 300: This grown-up-looking netbook makes parental snooping a cinch. Toshiba's Reel Time software gives you a history of every website and file your kid has been peeking at. $400, Ages 8 and up
Video Game Systems
As with laptops, this choice is all about the content: Whatever game console you're considering, what will matter most is each game's appropriateness. Guide yourself by how your kid is handling TV. "If he watches Pokémon or Power Rangers and doesn't transfer those aggressive behaviors and messages into real life, he might be ready for a game system," says Michael Osit, Ed.D. Meanwhile, when it comes to educational game systems, like those from LeapFrog and VTech, trust the age ranges printed on the packages. "These are not ages to be beaten," says Michael Rich, M.D. "Those are the guidelines as to when your child can most effectively learn from that specific software."
Nintendo DS Lite: One thing you can be sure of with this uber-popular handheld system: With games aimed at everybody between preschool and the AARP, your kids won't outgrow it. And it's got those easy-to-handle touch-screen controls. $130, Ages 5 and up
Nintendo Wii: It may not be a system made explicitly for young kids, but of all the major game consoles, this is the one that the youngest audiences glom on to. The motion controls are easy to pick up and learn, and the library of E-rated games is larger than anywhere else. $200, Ages 5 and up
V.Smile Motion, by VTech: The graphics may be old-school, but the motion controls on these learning games are definitely next-gen. How much easier could it be than to steer a race car simply by tilting the controller in the direction you want the vehicle to move? $60, Ages 3 to 7
First things first: Stay away from earbuds, which send sound directly into the middle ear, raising the risk of hearing damage. "Volume is a major problem with kids," says Dr. Vander Ploeg Booth. "At least with headphones, the sound isn't directly impacting the eardrum." To become the proud owner of her own MP3 player, your kid should be the sort who'll reliably keep the volume below 80 to 85
decibels (usually about half the loudest possible). Another issue: If you have to manage her time for her, she's not ready. "Creating playlists can be as much a part of a young person's identity as anything else," says Dr. Rich, "but they're a time suck." And children who have a tendency to zone out in front of a TV (or even a book) can be twice as difficult to engage if they're lost in a Zune zone.
Disney Mix Stick Lights: Software connects you to Disney Mix Central, a sort of Mouse-sanctioned iTunes where kids can set up playlists and download new music (you can add songs from any other MP3 source as well). Lights on the player flicker and flash to the beat of whatever song she's playing. $40, Ages 6 to 12
Hello Kitty MP3 Player: A simple player with room for plenty of music and an easy-to-use interface. But the real highlight is changeable faceplates for customized style. $30, Ages 6 to 10
Ribbit, by Nextar: Up to a thousand songs on something pocket-size -- and cute to boot. Volume and song selection are controlled by turning the frog's buggy eyes. $10, Ages 5 to 10
The kids-and-tech think tank Common Sense Media supports giving children cell phones once they're old enough to go places by themselves. (A Nielsen poll showed most kids who get them are 9 or 10.) The other important factor when you make the call for your kid: impulse control. Clearly, you can -- and might want to -- limit text or photo-sending capabilities if you're not sure these will be used responsibly.
glowPhone, by Firefly Mobile: Evolving from its original incarnation as the kid phone that only calls Mom, the glowPhone can store 50 numbers and receive texts (but no sending). In addition to its hefty parental controls, you can also buy into limited-calling plans that can teach kids a good lesson in budgeting. Phones from $50; service plans from $5 a month Ages 8 to 18
Jitterbug: Okay, the Jitterbug was developed as a phone for seniors, but its simplified, icon-free menu and oversize buttons can make it a good pick for kids as well. "Those big-button phones could be awesome for five-year-olds," says Allison Druin, Ph.D., "even if the older adults they're made for wouldn't be too happy to hear me say that." Phones from $150; service plans from $15 a month Ages 8 to 12 (or 55 and up)
Kajeet: This kid-centric phone service wipes away a lot of the worry factor for parents by putting them in charge of almost everything. From your PC, you can set blackout times when the phone simply won't work, block certain numbers, designate contacts as text-able or not, and even activate a GPS locator built into the phone. Tweens and teens may bristle at the lack of privacy, but they'll be happy to have a sweetly equipped phone, like the LG Rumor with a full qwerty keyboard and built-in camera. Phones from $25 (though the Rumor is $200); service plans from $5 a month Ages 8 to 18
Christopher Healy is the author of Pop Culture: The Sane Man's Guide to the Insane World of New Fatherhood.