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Consumer Electronics

Tech Products for Kids Grow Up

While stocking up on back-to-school pencils, notebooks, backpacks, and clothes for their kids, many parents also are scoping out new gadgets that can entertain and educate. These days they're surprised by what they see in the electronics aisle: kid-friendly laptops, phones, and other gadgets that are growing more sophisticated and look increasingly like their grown-up counterparts.

Toymakers and electronics companies are catering to the rise in tech literacy among younger and younger children. Kids are spending more time on activities such as surfing the Web and operating DVRs, and more of them own computers and mobile phones than just a few years ago. That's created an opportunity to market what were once thought of as adult tech products to kids.

"There definitely is a trend of looking at adult technologies and seeing whether they are adaptable for younger kids," says Kathleen Kremer, manager of child research at Fisher-Price. As Kremer tests products with children in the company's East Aurora (N.Y.) research lab, she often finds that her team has underestimated kids' facility with gadgets. For example, testing of a digital camera designed for children 5 and older revealed that kids as young as 3 could easily use it to take pictures. So Fisher-Price changed the label.

Parents Lead the Way Some 93% of teenagers now use the Internet, up from 87% in 2004, according to the Pew Internet & American Life Project. Kids ages 12 to 17 spend two more minutes on video games per day than they did in 2004, and two more minutes watching DVR shows and movies than they did on the VCR that same year, according to Nielsen. Also, 31% of children between 8 and 10 now own mobile phones, according to unpublished data from a forthcoming study by the Kaiser Family Foundation, up from 21% in 2004.

Tech-savvy parents are partly to thank for the tech readiness of their kids. "The current generation of parents has already adopted a tech lifestyle, and they're a lot more involved with what their kids are doing," says Christopher Healy, senior culture editor and product reviewer for Condé Nast-owned parenting magazine Cookie. As kids see their parents with iPods, PCs, and other gadgets, they want that lifestyle too, Healy adds.

Philadelphia resident Matt Helmke gets frequent reminders of his family's tech acumen while he's at work; his 3-year-old daughter Ava has figured out how to initiate a video chat using Apple's (AAPL) iChat software on the home computer. "She knows that if she clicks on the icon she'll see Daddy," Helmke says. "The computer and tech in general are just an accepted part of her world, so that eliminates any sense of intimidation."

Even though kids can work many adult products, Fisher-Price's Kremer says it's the job of companies like hers to make them more intuitive for children. But bigger buttons and easier menus don't take a backseat to function, she adds: "They expect that things are going to work like an adult product."

Click here for a list, compiled by BusinessWeek and Cookie magazine, of the 50 best tech products for kids.
MacMillan is a reporter for Bloomberg News and Bloomberg Businessweek in San Francisco.

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