Two-year-old Marcelina Doleglo walked straight up to the Dora the Explorer game playing on an iMac at an Apple Store in Oakbrook, Ill., set her Barbie doll down on the table and wrapped her tiny hand around the computer mouse.
But 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 nap time.
"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 is older -- perhaps 5 or 6.
Oh, how holiday shopping has changed in an era of technologically savvy kids.
Forget new bicycles, hula hoops and telescopes; even Nintendo Wiis and Microsoft Xboxes have fallen lower on this season's wish lists. According to a Nielsen study released last month, 31 percent of kids 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 -- with applications specifically designed for children as young as 3 -- in recent years.
It does, however, force parents to set guidelines on how young is too young to receive a piece of expensive equipment. In an online national survey of parents with children 12 and younger, 49 percent reported plans to give their kids electronic gifts -- from cell phones to computers to iPads -- for Christmas and Hanukkah this year.
"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."
While computers and iPods have been around for years, the introduction of touch-screen technology -- such as 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 its large screen, colorful animation and finger-painting-like controls, it did not take long after the iPad's introduction in May before researchers at children's media companies such as Scholastic began noticing the so-called "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 available for download onto cell phones, computers and other electronic devices than ever.
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 are 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."
In Skokie, Ill., Dr. Eitan Schwarz, a child psychiatrist and author of the book "Kids, Parents & Technology," 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, last of all, offers entertainment, Schwarz said.
The child's age is less important than the parents' commitment to being educated and in control of the electronics, he 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."