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How young is too young for electronics presents?

For parents, a new issue on gifts

Christine Olmsted watches her son R.J., 12, as he uses an animation program on his bedroom computer in their Rose Valley home.
Christine Olmsted watches her son R.J., 12, as he uses an animation program on his bedroom computer in their Rose Valley home.Read moreED HILLE / Staff Photographer

This was the year my son's Christmas list really plugged in.

His requests to Santa included a Nintendo DS, several games, plus all the electronic trimmings. He's already got an iPod, and now wants accessories, starting with dog-shaped speakers that move to the music. About the only thing he hasn't asked for yet is a cell phone, but he's eager to use Mom's or Dad's whenever he gets the chance.

Oh, and one more thing: He's 7.

If you have children, chances are you're facing this same situation in one form or another. And for a generation that was forced to wait until 16 to get a land line in the bedroom, it can be tough to navigate the appropriate age for cell-phone ownership - especially when kids are asking for technological gadgets at younger and younger ages.

But how young is too young? It's a question parents struggle with even as educators and child experts scramble to keep up. The only thing they are sure to recommend is careful buying.

Take, for instance, the MP3 player. Parents should consider not only what it offers a child, but also what it takes away, says Kathy Hirsh-Pasek, a professor of psychology at Temple University. The same technologies that connect our kids to the outside world also can shut them inside electronic boxes.

"Music is great, and it builds listening skills," Hirsh-Pasek says. "But if a 5-year-old is walking around with [earphones] all the time, you're tuning out. You're missing out."

Technology specifically marketed to young people doesn't make it any easier to weigh the pros and cons.

Back in 2005 when the Firefly - the first cell phone made specifically for kids ages 12 and younger - debuted, it had only five keys, which could be programmed to call parents or emergency numbers.

This year's version, the flyPhone, features an MP3 player, a camera, and a keypad that switches from numbers to letters to allow for that all-important text messaging.

Even video game systems, most notably Nintendo's Wii and handheld DS, are chock-full of games preschoolers can play.

But before parents start blaming consumer culture, peer pressure or the media for children's increasing desire for high-tech gadgetry, they may need to recognize their own complicity, says author Anastasia Goodstein.

Modern parents demand instant access to their kids, and it's a need partly driven by fear, says Goodstein, whose 2007 book, Totally Wired: What Teens and Tweens Are Really Doing Online, explored the expanding technology gap between kids and parents.

She recalled how in 2006, when New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg tried to ban students from having cell phones in schools, it was parents, not the kids, who raised the most fuss.

Hirsh-Pasek, coauthor of the recently published A Mandate for Playful Learning in Preschool and a parent of three, says the cell phone presents a special challenge. While it allows parents and children easier access to one another, parents' "manic compression" could quash some independent coping skills. Years ago, a child waiting to be picked up after soccer practice would just have to wait a little longer if Mom was running late. Today, a flurry of phone calls and text messages means a child is, in effect, never alone - and thus, never learning how to be alone.

"What might be convenient for parents might not be what's best for the child," she said. "How did we grow up? Are we a mess because we didn't talk to our mother 15 times a day?"

Social media networks like MySpace and Facebook have age limits put in place to protect children, but there are ways around them - sometimes with their mother's or father's help, Goodstein says. "I have run into some parents who are OK with their 12-year-old being on MySpace, and are OK with being complicit in having their 12-year-old lying about their age and saying they're 40 because they think that's going to keep them safe," she says. (The logic being that they would be safe from child predators.)

"I wish there was sort of an easy answer, and easy guidelines to give parents, but what I found is that all kids are different and all parents are different," she says.

Some parents, like Christine Olmsted, remain unashamedly old-school in their approach to kids and technology. Her two children, 14-year-old Sarah and 12-year-old R.J. Szymczak, have computers in their rooms, but every keystroke is monitored. The family has a Wii system in its Rose Valley home, but with one rule: You can't be sitting down while you're using it. As for cell phones, Olmsted finally relented and got one - just one - which her children are allowed to use only when they're out somewhere and may need to call Mom or Dad for a ride home. Text messaging is a no-no, and all the electronics are taken away if the kids get out of line.

It's a far cry from when Olmsted was growing up, when her grandmother, now 91, would knock her on the head with the butt of the telephone if she got a call during dinner. The TV, she says, "was a privilege, and the TV was something that we all watched together. So to have one in any place other than the family room was unfathomable."

A recent study from Common Sense Media seems to confirm parents' long-held fears that too much TV, video games and Internet use could, in fact, lead to long-term problems: an increased likelihood of obesity, smoking, drug and alcohol use, and low academic achievement. But despite its Dec. 2 publication date, the study already seems dated, as it doesn't address things like MP3 players, cell phones, and now-ubiquitous social media, a deficiency its lead researcher acknowledges in the introduction to the findings.

Still, it's not just at home where children are exposed to these technologies. Michelle Malaby, who teaches first graders at Harrison Township Elementary in Mullica Hill, uses a Smart Board - an electronic chalkboard not unlike the "magic screen" used on CNN during the recent election. What struck her was how quickly and easily the kids became comfortable with using it, as many of them had been using computers nearly since they were toddlers.

The downside is that as kids' exposure to technology has increased over the decade-plus she's been teaching, their ability to pay attention has decreased.

"I don't know if that's attributed to the constant in-your-face of technology, or if it's just the fact that our lives are so busy, but it seems like they need that constant entertainment, the in-your-face stimulation," she says.