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The Right Technology for Kids at Every Age

Jon Whittle (photo) / Monika Melnychuk (illustration)

If you’re like most parents, you’re proudly documenting your child’s firsts: smile, steps, words. But today’s photo albums are filling up with other firsts as well: electronic toy, iPod, computer. These are digital milestones, but you won’t find them in the parenting book on your nightstand.

“There's really is no ‘right’ age to allow our kids to dip a toe into the digital pond,” says the American Academy of Pediatrics’s (AAP) tech expert, Gwenn Schurgin O’Keeffe M.D., author of CyberSafe. “But if we pay attention, we can decide what makes the most sense for our kids, because the reality is these new milestones are coming whether we like it or not.” This certainly isn’t the technology we grew up with. (You probably begged your parents for a bigger television or your own phone—we’re guessing a plastic hamburger or a set of red lips.) Whereas technology once lived in our world, we now live in a world of technology. The Kaiser Family Foundation found that roughly a quarter of all children between the ages of 4 and 6 were using personal computers at least 50 minutes a day—and that study came out four years ago (aka pre-Angry Birds)! “Children today are surrounded by digital media,” says Lori Takeuchi, director of research at the Joan Ganz Cooney Center at Sesame Workshop, a research center in New York City dedicated to “advancing children’s learning in the digital age.” “We found that households with kids ages four to fourteen own, on average, eleven consumer- electronics devices.”

Although the media spends a lot of ink (er, pixels) on the scary aspects (cyberbullying! sexting!), there’s also a great deal of benefi t that kids can reap. “The ability to use technology to seek answers to questions and reach out across the world opens the mind to an almost endless expanse of knowledge,” says Tammi Williams, M.D., a pediatrician at Baylor Medical Center, in Irving, TX. Obviously, children develop at different rates and will be mature enough to handle devices at different ages. The 411 that follows will help you be better prepared whenever your kid takes the technology plunge.

0 TO 12 MONTHS: The Button Pusher

1. Learns cause and effect with electronic toys

2. Handles iPhone set to “airplane mode”

3. Should not hold mobile phone while babbling to Grandma

Every baby toy on the shelves seems to light up and play music. Harvey Karp, M.D., famed Los Angeles-based pediatrician and author of the best-selling book The Happiest Baby on the Block, considers today’s electronic toys to be “modern-day rattles” because they teach cause and effect and also hone manipulative hand skills. But everything in your child’s toy box shouldn’t require double-A batteries. If your child is 9 months or older, make sure you have as many “active” toys as “passive” ones. With passive toys, your child can press a button for the “Mary Had a Little Lamb” light show . Active toys (blocks, balls, etc.) require interaction and participation, and foster fine motor skills.

There is no conclusive evidence about the impact of cellphone use on small children. But cell phones do emit electromagnetic fields, and children’s still-developing skulls are thinner than adults’. If you’re going to call Grandma, have your baby babble on speakerphone or into a headset. If you hand her your phone as a quick distraction, put it on airplane mode, which disables the wireless signal.