Caitlin Zielinski, 10, thought she wanted a phone for Christmas. She did online research to find models that would meet her requirements - she could text, call, and play games like Be Funky and Skyburger - while acknowledging her parents' - they could tighten the reins if she texted too much or tried to download unapproved apps.
Ultimately, Caitlin decided she didn't want to deal with monthly bills, so she revised her Christmas wishes: A laptop is now at the top of her list.
Not all children are as likely to weigh the pros and cons of their technological gifts-to-be. But most can be extremely persistent, posing sophisticated arguments about why they should have them.
"It's hard for a parent to keep up," said Kathy Hirsh-Pasek, a psychology professor at Temple University who studies child development and the role of play in learning. "Products are being developed faster than we can possibly study them."
As we move into the heart of the 2014 holiday shopping season, the lines between toys and technology are blurrier than ever. Here's some advice on what kids may ask for, whether you should oblige, and how you can substitute good alternatives.
Ages 4 to 7
What they'll ask for: Kids of this age may very well ask for an iPad, a PlayStation, or their very own phone, but they're often just parroting what their older siblings want. They're easily redirected toward child versions of big-ticket gadgets.
Should they get it? For families who aren't opposed to introducing technology at a young age, kid tablets have come a long way, said Chris Byrne, content director of TTPM, a consumer website that reviews and tracks prices of toys and kids' electronics. Tablets made by Nabi, VTech, and Kurio are fully functioning Android devices; they're just wrapped in brightly colored plastic.
"These kid tablets come with really clear parental controls and preloaded, age-appropriate content," Byrne said.
Old-school ideas: Kids of this age love arts and crafts, and the possibilities for those gifts are endless. Also, Byrne said, board games are selling well. Many games now feature some technological elements (Monopoly comes in an Electronic Banking edition) but classic versions remain popular.
Sara Goldschneider, a mother of three boys in Glenside, asks relatives to consider books or Lego sets instead of technology toys. "I don't want to give them access to a world they're not ready for," she said.
Ages 7 to 10
What they'll ask for: Peer pressure escalates during these years. If one kid in the neighborhood has her own phone, your kids will probably ask for one, too. More sophisticated tablet computers, like the Nook and the Kindle Fire, are very popular. Kids are probably using a family computer for homework and will try to convince you they should have their own. And Xbox or Wii users may start pushing boundaries by asking for games recommended for teen or mature users.
Should they get it? Maybe. Tablet makers and computer operating systems all offer parental controls that filter ads, block sexual content, and enable varying degrees of Internet access. Renee Wentz, a Jenkintown mom, subscribes to regular reports from Microsoft Family Safety to make sure her 10-year-old son's online activity stays within the time limits and other boundaries she's set.
As for video games, Byrne and Hirsh-Pasek agreed that the gaming industry's ratings are fair and accurate. "At some point, your kid is going to ask you for Call of Duty," said Byrne, of the popular first-person shooter game series. "That's when the word 'no' comes in really handy."
In this age group, most kids will be amused - at least for a while - by nonviolent video games like Skylanders: Trap Team and Disney Infinity. Byrne noted that these games appeal to boys and girls alike.
Old-school ideas: Remote-control cars, helicopters, animals and more can satisfy a technology craving while still enticing kids to be outside and active. Room decor also can be appealing. Wentz mentioned that her son has asked for a beanbag chair. "But he's probably thinking he can sit in it when he plays his video games," she said with a laugh.
Ages 10 to 13
What they'll ask for: These are the big-ticket years, when kids feel that "everyone" has a phone and they "need" their own computer. Be ready for sophisticated arguments. Declan Zielinski, 12, has asked for a WiiU gaming system. He already has an Xbox, but because his parents don't allow him to play games with a "mature" rating, he's willing to trade in that system for the WiiU, which offers more kid-friendly games.
Should you get it? There's no hard-and-fast rule, especially as kids get older. The Zielinski kids have impressed their parents with their interests in computer programming, fiction writing, and animé art, and they've used their gadgets and devices to explore those hobbies.
And with preteens, you're probably safe leaving Santa out of the conversation. You can take the credit (or the blame) for all the joys and disappointments under the tree. If your child is motivated and offers to pay for a device herself, that can provide a powerful lesson in incentives and saving.
Old-school idea: Preteen boys and girls are taking more of an interest in clothes, so you may be able to impress them with a pair of coveted boots, new sneakers, or a sports jersey from a favorite team. Concert or sporting event tickets are also a great idea for this age group.