A group of kids from one of our local elementary schools has formed a "mini-laptop club." They don't use electronic machines. Instead, these first-, second- and third-graders draw their own laptops on construction paper and pretend to e-mail each other. They dedicate a surprising amount of time to this activity. I once had a chance to examine one of their "keyboards." I was fascinated to learn which Internet functions had sunk into the minds of these kids, who are just getting their first exposure to computers from watching their parents work, and from using kid-friendly sites. Follow the page jump to see one of their designs.
You can see that shopping and entertainment functions have made a big impression on this 8-year-old girl. Movies, Harry Potter (the "HP Trivia" key), and most of all, electronic pets have dedicated functions.
The keychain-size Littlest Pet Shop "digital pet" games are popular with girls in our town, sort of a compromise toy allowed by parents who aren't quite ready to take the plunge into the online world of Webkinz. I would say Webkinz are an even larger phenomenon but the girl who made this mini-laptop does not have one yet.
Companies that sell products to kids are racing to embrace online marketing strategies. Television shows can only have so much advertising in them, but companies can air a TV ad that says, "Hey kids, have even more fun when you visit this toy's Web site." Then companies can market to those kids as much as they like.
This is an inevitable development in pop culture, but one parents should be aware of. "Free" online activities often come with strings attached: more immersion in a commercialized culture.