Two-year-old Marcelina Doleglo walked straight up to the Dora the Explorer game playing on an iMac at the Oakbrook, Ill., Center Apple Store, set her Barbie doll down on the table, and wrapped her tiny hand around the computer mouse.

No matter how expertly the toddler clicked through the cartoon adventures, her mother, Agnieszka Doleglo, wasn't about to buy the $1,199 unit for a child who still fusses every day at naptime.

"Right now, she's definitely too small. She would drop it and break it, probably," said Doleglo, who added that she would reconsider when Marcelina was older - perhaps 5 or 6.

Oh, how holiday shopping has changed in an era of technologically savvy kids.

Forget new bicycles and telescopes; even Nintendo Wii's and Microsoft Xboxes have fallen lower on this season's wish lists. According to a Nielsen study released last month, 31 percent of kids ages 6 to 12 want an Apple iPad, more than all other electronics this year. Computers and the iPod Touch tie for the next most-requested devices, at 29 percent.

Those who study the retail industry and technology say kids' desires for big-ticket electronics are not surprising, given the way gadgets have evolved in recent years - with applications specifically designed for children as young as 3.

It does, however, force parents to set their own guidelines on how young is too young to receive a piece of expensive equipment. In an online national survey of parents with children ages 12 and younger, 49 percent reported plans to give their kids electronic gifts this year for Christmas and Hanukkah - from cell phones to computers to iPads.

"There's a real passion on the part of kids in this particular generation for this technology," said Lesli Rotenberg, senior vice president of children's media for PBS Kids, which conducted the study. "The challenge is: For parents who are navigating this territory . . . there is no regulation on this."

While computers and iPods have been around for years, the introduction of touchscreen technology - what you'd find on a Motorola Droid phone or Apple's iPad - inspired a notable shift in the way adult gadgets appealed to kids, said Deborah Forte, president of Scholastic Media.

With the iPad's large screen, colorful animation, and finger-painting-like controls, it was not long after its introduction in May before researchers at children's media companies began noticing the "pass-back effect."

"It's the parent passing the iPad to a young child to occupy them, or passing it in a waiting room for a young child to play," Forte said. "These children are getting it from their parents, and they're usually quite young."

In response, established children's media companies such as Scholastic and PBS Kids joined thousands of program developers already hoping to capture young audiences with the next Cut the Rope or Talking Tom Cat application. Within months, there were more children's games and programs than ever available for download to cell phones, computers, and other electronic devices.

In December 2008, there were 500 apps specifically designed for children. By this year, that number had grown to 9,000 - of which an estimated 65 percent were being used by preschoolers, Forte said.

What's interesting about the growth is that marketers can't take credit for steering young audiences toward the gadgets or their related applications. Adults and children alike seem to learn about the latest technology on their own, whether by word of mouth or through other technology, such as social networking, said David Urban, a professor of marketing at Virginia Commonwealth University.

"It's not an issue of marketers' forcing things down our throats," Urban said. "They're providing things that people genuinely want and have grown to need."

Evidence of this plays out at the Schuler home in Countryside, Ill., where parents Wendy and Kevin put a computer in the playroom several years ago. They did so because they wanted their four children to grow up as comfortable with technology as their classmates were.

Yet even with strict guidelines on computer use - 15 minutes of math facts for every 15 minutes of games - the Schulers couldn't stop the technological momentum.

For Christmas this year, their 11-year-old wants an iPod and a docking station. Their 10-year-old requested an iPhone. And their youngest, 4-year-old Abby, asked Santa Claus to bring her a princess table, an ice rink, and a pink iPod.

"Certainly, when I was 4, we had nothing - nothing - like that," said Wendy Schuler. "It's quite a bit different."

In Skokie, Ill., Eitan Schwarz, a child psychiatrist and author of the book Kids, Parents & Technology: A Guide for Young Families, advises parents to develop a "media plan" when it comes to buying children the latest electronics.

Within that plan, no piece of technology belongs in the home unless it adds to family life, teaches socialization, values education, expands a child's world, and, lastly, offers entertainment, Schwarz said.

The child's age is less important than the parents' commitment to being educated and in control of the electronics, Schwarz added. That means researching computer applications before allowing kids to use them. And parents and children should plan to use the technology together, he said.

"It's so tempting to just get one of these things just to play with," Schwarz said. "The electronics are appliances in your home. They're not toys. You have both the obligation and the right to control what's going on in your house."

Come Saturday morning, that's what Larry Ngo plans to do when his 10-year-old daughter, Lexie, unwraps the iPad she has been begging for since her birthday.

Ngo, a janitor, spent the last six months saving up for his daughter's $499 gift, which he recently bought online after she brought home a straight-As report card. Technology is moving so quickly, Ngo said, he wanted to reward Lexie with the latest tool to help her with her homework.

But he shudders to think of what the fifth grader will ask for next.

"I don't promise anything," he said. "I think the iPad is going to have to keep her happy for a couple of years."