Does everyone really have one? If they are teenagers, yes. But younger kids are definitely gaining. In a 2009 study, 83 percent of teens had a cell phone, and 53 percent had one before they were 12. How young are kids dialing in? Fourteen percent of 5- to 7-year-olds have phones. So do 26 percent of 8- to 10-year-olds and 45 percent of 11- to 12-year-olds.
What age to start: When your child starts school (and spending time at playdates and parties), a simple phone just for calling home might be in order. The Firefly Glow Phone, for kids ages 5 and older, has buttons for Mom, Dad, and Emergency. (Cost: $50 for the phone, $10 a month for 25 minutes, fireflymobile.com.)
As they grow up: So he says he needs to dial more than three numbers? Add a phone to your existing plan, but make use of options like Verizon’s Chaperone plan ($10 a month) and Sprint’s Family Locator ($5 a month), which let you track kids’ whereabouts via GPS technology. Most providers also let you control minutes, texts, and games.
Causes for concern: Discuss explicit text messaging (“sexting”) and bullying, even with younger kids. “Today’s kids do not consider the consequences of what they say and the photos they send,” says David Bickham, a scientist with the Center on Media and Child Health at Children’s Hospital in Boston. “Kids need to realize that once a picture is out there, they’re no longer in control.”
2 of 6Ann Summa
Does everyone really have one? If they don't own one, they definitely use one. Even kindergartners regularly work with computers in school. And 60 percent of kids ages 12 to 17 have their own desktop or laptop. By the time they enter junior high, many kids will be more computer-savvy than their parents.
What age to start: Can your preschooler move the mouse? Then she’s ready. Of course, you should supervise and stick to safe sites, like pbskids.org, which is developed to be educational, and kideoplayer.com, a site where they can shuffle through kid-friendly YouTube clips just by pressing the space bar.
As they grow up: Parental worry really sets in when children learn to type and―deep breath―navigate the Internet. Once they do, look into kid-safe software that limits children to a universe of preselected sites, like Norton’s new Online Family (onlinefamily.norton.com), which is free to download until January 2010.
Causes for concern: Even preteens consider access to social networks like Facebook a constitutional right. Make sure they understand basic safety rules: Never reveal personal information (even which school they attend). And think twice―make that three times―before posting photos they wouldn’t want the whole world to see.
3 of 6Amazon
Playstation, Xbox or Wii
Does everyone really have one? Not exactly. Among children ages 4 to 14, 37 percent own a portable gaming device (like a Nintendo DS), while 26 percent have their own video-game console (like a Wii). However, in many households, Dad may claim the Wii as his toy, but the kids certainly play along.
What age to start: If your 3- or 4-year-old is interested in his big sister’s Wii, check reviews at commonsensemedia.org, says Bickham. Some games, like Dora the Explorer: Dora Saves the Snow Princess, have a helper mode that lets another person jump in with a second controller when a child gets stuck. Keep the system in view in the family room.
As they grow up: Games like Civilization, SimCity, and Zoo Tycoon help kids acquire complex problem-solving skills. And active games, like Dance Dance Revolution, are good for fitness. Before buying a portable system (and shelling out more than $130), make sure your child can be trusted not to lose it.
Causes for concern: “There is consistent evidence that violent media affect the way kids think and act with regard to violence,” says Bickham. So insist on nonviolent games. Look for the ratings EC (early childhood), E (everyone), and E10+ (everyone 10 and older). And read reviews from parents at Amazon.com or commonsensemedia.org.
4 of 6 Sears
Does everyone really have one? They certainly have access. Of kids under the age of 2, 43 percent watch television every day. Two-thirds of children under 6 watch two hours of television (or DVDs) a day. At 8 years old, that figure jumps to four hours. Sixty-six percent of kids 8 and up have TVs in their rooms.
What age to start: Most doctors say no TV before age 2, when brains are rapidly developing and need interactive play. “It won’t do harm, but there’s no evidence they learn anything,” says Michael Rich, director of the Center on Media and Child Health at Children’s Hospital, in Boston. By ages 3 to 5, they do; cue Sesame Street.
As they grow up: There are few educational programs for school-age kids (it’s pretty much all Hannah Montana), so treat television like dessert. “Only after homework and family meals,” says Rich. As for kids watching adult shows with you? The only benefit is if it sparks a talk on sex or violence that you otherwise might skip.
Causes for concern: Aside from the obvious (bedroom scenes, knife fights), commercials are problematic. Exposure to food ads is a culprit in the connection between screen time and obesity. “You don’t see ads for broccoli,” says Rich. Watching commercials on fast-forward still counts, so use the skip function on TiVo or stick to videos that are ad-free.
5 of 6 Fisher Price
Does everyone really have one? It’s hard to say. Most young children using digital cameras are playing with Mom’s or Dad’s, though there are new, kid-friendly (meaning less breakable) models that have hit the market in the past few years.
What age to start: Fisher Price’s Kid-Tough camera and VTech’s Kidizoom (for ages 3 and up) feature binocular-style viewfinders and color screens. “It’s a great outlet for creativity,” says Wendy Ewald, a coauthor of I Wanna Take Me a Picture: Teaching Photography and Writing to Children (Beacon, $22, amazon.com).
As they grow up: “Photography is democratic,” says Ewald. Even kids who don’t paint, draw, or dance can express themselves artistically. As your child moves on from Fisher Price, look for a simple point-and-shoot model with a macro setting to focus on close-ups, which young photographers tend to love.
Causes for concern: Most kids are going to be concentrating on flowers and silly faces, not mature material, but you should still have them download photos on the family computer, so you can see what they’re snapping.
6 of 6 Apple
Does everyone really have one? They will soon enough. While currently 30 percent of kids 4 to 14 have a digital-music device, that number has jumped from only 6 percent in 2005. In the next few years, it will be a majority. For kids 13 to 17, 92 percent own some type of music player, and for 86 percent of them, it’s an iPod.
What age to start: The main concern for small ears is hearing loss over time. “The sound an earpiece generates in a smaller ear, as opposed to an adult ear, is more intense,” says Brian Fligor, director of diagnostic audiology at Children’s Hospital in Boston. At age 7 or 8, kids are probably mature enough to stick to volume limits you set.
As they grow up: Set rules on how long they can listen, not just for safety: They’re also not engaging in family life. Kids can listen at 70 percent volume for 90 minutes a day without increasing the risk of hearing loss; at 100 percent, only five minutes are safe. Check Apple support to learn how to lock a maximum volume on an iPod.
Causes for concern: Don’t choose over-the-ear headphones thinking they’re safer than ear buds. Earplug-style headphones (the ones that go into the ear canal) may actually protect young ears, because kids tend to play music at a lower volume with them. Use iTunes parental controls to keep tabs on downloads.