Like many students his age, 10-year-old Jacob Hanstein navigates the Internet with cool efficiency. When he recently wanted a pair of sneakers with wheels in the heels, for instance, he knew just where to turn.
"We told him we were not spending $70 for a pair of sneakers," says Jacob's mother, Jill Hanstein, of Ringwood, N.J. "He's adept at pricing things. He did a search, found all the places that sell Heelys, and found one that had them for $39.99." Mother and son went to the store, and Jacob bought the shoes with his own money.
"It's fun," the fourth-grader says. "If you find a really low price, then it doesn't cost a lot of money."
Youthful Internet skills like these are turning a generation of children and young teens into tech-savvy consumers, able to shop – or at least comparison shop – for themselves and their families. Some also help parents plan vacations, get driving directions, and even download tax forms. In the process, their cyber-assistance has the potential to alter family dynamics.
"The child has become part of the management of family life," says Adele Schwartz, research director for Stars for Kidz, a children's market-research firm. "This is a big role change in family life. Family chores are shifting. It used to be take out the garbage and walk the dog. This is a little bit bigger than that."
Three-quarters of students between the ages of 8 and 14 say they have completed an online transaction, according to a national survey released May 9 by Stars for Kidz. Nearly one-fourth of the 6,000 young respondents say they shop with their parents' credit cards, 26 percent use gift cards, and 8 percent say they use their own credit card. Almost half say they help with electronic transactions because their parents are "clueless" online. One-third help because their parents don't have enough time to shop.
"Kids do a fair amount of comparison shopping for features and prices," Ms. Schwartz says. That includes clothing, household items, family vacations, and even large items like a car.
All this cyber-help "definitely gives kids a power that they might not have had before," says Gary Rudman, president of GTR Consulting in San Francisco. "Parents still make the decisions, but kids have more and more impact than ever before, because they have access to information. They are more involved with the household dynamics, so they have more input in some of the decisions."
Parents have varied reactions to letting their children use credit cards online, Mr. Rudman says. "Some parents are open to it, others are opposed."
Like many parents, Mrs. Hanstein keeps a watchful eye on Jacob's Internet use. "He loves to order stuff, but it's always with our supervision. He doesn't understand that a lot of the pop-up stuff – 'You've won this!' or 'You can get this for $1' – is a scam."
Jacob describes their system for making electronic purchases. "I look at it by myself, then she looks at it. If we have enough money, she buys it."
At Jacob's birthday party last Saturday, he received a number of gift cards. Calling such cards "an interesting entrée into the credit-card business," Schwartz says, "When kids get a gift card, moms tell us they generally like to give them the freedom to use them as they wish. Kids like to use them online."
Karen Fylstra's daughter, who is 13, used a gift card to order clothes online from Old Navy.
"She thought it was cool," says Mrs. Fylstra, of Midland Park, N.J. But her teenager's Internet shopping stops there. "We have one credit card, just for emergencies," Fylstra says. "I would never let her use that."
Even when children and young teens say they used their parents' credit cards, that may be an overstatement.
"What actually happens in a lot of these cases is they have found what they wanted to buy and gotten approval from a parent," says Max Valiquette, CEO of Youthography, a research firm that studies youth culture. "They've gone through every step until checkout, and then Mom or Dad comes in and actually inputs the credit-card number."
Such parental supervision is essential, says Susan Shankle, author of "What In the World Are Your Kids Doing Online?"
"Children are not going to understand the power of a credit card, no matter how many times you explain it," she says. "There are pop-ups and junk e-mails and ways for people to ask for credit-card information that look official."
Under the federal Children's Online Privacy Protection Act of 1998, nobody can ask children for personal information without parental permission.
Beyond shopping transactions, other role reversals exist. "In previous generations, the standard joke was, 'I don't know how to program my VCR, but my kid does,' " Rudman says. "Now your kids are your experts for many things. You might turn to your 12- or 13-year-old and say, 'How do I print these photos?' "
Mr. Valiquette finds families working together online in other ways as well.
"A lot of parents hear about Wikipedia from their kids," he says. "Kids are also taking their parents to YouTube."
Fylstra's daughter taught her how to find songs and load them onto an iPod. "She also taught me how to find the past history of things you've checked on the Internet."
For 12-year-old Keegan Hufham of Greensboro, N.C., role reversals include helping his grandparents with their computer.
"Sometimes they'll get an error message, or they can't get their e-mail because it'll have an attachment [that] won't open," says Claudia Hufham, his mother. Keegan, who wants to attend a baseball camp this summer, is also helping his parents by researching camps online.
Shari Goldstein of Long Island, whose sons are age 14 and 16, says, "My goal is to use the Internet to foster safe independence. When they want me to drive them somewhere, it's their job to get directions, movie times, store hours, and so on. When they want a particular piece of electronic equipment, I make them do the research on features and pricing."
Ms. Shankle praises such online sharing. "If a parent can sit down with a child and learn something new electronically from that child, that's positive."
Referring to vacations, she adds, "It's always good to get your children's input on where to go and how to get there."
When children use the Internet with parents, Schwartz says, "There's something about it that builds self-esteem, that contributes to their learning of lifestyle management, and that taps into important critical thinking skills, like making comparisons and making judgments."