There it was: the wrinkled nose and rolled eyes of a 9-year-old projecting deep disdain. What prompted the withering look from Andrea Hricko was this question: Do you play with Barbie dolls much?

"Not really," she said, looking up warily from the Sam Goody's rack at the Mall in Columbia, where she'd found a Backstreet Boys album on sale.

Hricko explained that Barbie is "really more for 6 and under." She resumed pawing through the displays of pop music by Aaron Carter and that Mouseketeer-turned-booty-shaker, Britney Spears. Andrea's two younger siblings were right there with her, begging their mom for CDs.

Sound familiar? Got some headless Barbies lying abandoned in the bottom of the family toybox? Feeling puzzled, Boomer Mom, by your child's lack of reverence for the 1960s icon you adored?

It turns out that American kids are abandoning not just Barbie, but also most other traditional toys, at ever-younger ages.

Used to be, for instance, that girls in Andrea's age range, 6 to 10, were the prime market for Barbie and other dress-up dolls. But nowadays, Barbie is really big only with 3-to-5-year-olds. After that, she's considered pretty babyish.

In the toy business, this phenomenon is called "age compression," and it's a deep worry to the industry because it has shrunk the market for baby dolls, action figures and other mainstays. With older kids staying out of toy stores, fortunes have dimmed for big toy retailers, such as Toys R Us Inc., which recently closed 27 stores and cut 1,900 jobs.

"The toy age is actually peaking these days at 8, and the toy industry is really wondering how to deal with that," said Maria Weiskott, editor of Playthings magazine.

"Age compression is something we're stuck with. It's the core challenge facing the industry. And it's magnified with Barbie," said John Taylor, an analyst with Arcadia Investments who follows the toy industry.

Never mind the financial fortunes of toymakers, though: Age compression hurts children, say some parents, psychiatrists and child advocates, who worry that this cultural shift is robbing kids of their childhood.

And who gets blamed for that? Pop-culture marketers, of course, but also well-meaning parents who give infants and toddlers so many education-oriented electronic toys, talking-robot pals and computer games, according to Dorothy G. Singer, a senior research scientist at Yale University's department of psychiatry.

Many tech toys and CD-ROM games squelch kids' capacity for imaginative play, she said, in part by limiting the way they think, producing what she calls "convergent thinking."

"You have to answer the way the computer wants you to," Singer said. But "when a child plays with dolls, blocks or Legos, they can be anything, anyone, go anywhere -- their imagination soars."

The tech toys may teach skills, she added, but they can also alter children's learning styles in ways that don't become apparent until later. Parents wake up and find themselves wondering how their 8-year-old became so addicted to electronic stimuli, so impatient with three-dimensional objects.

Toymakers disagree, saying technology need not erode the appeal of toys; it can enhance it. "Lights and sounds can add fun, make a toy more magical," said Neil Friedman, president and chief executive of the Fisher-Price division of Mattel Inc. "If a child is enjoying a toy and coming back to it, how can that not be good?"

So great is the shift in children's toy interests, though, that the Consumer Product Safety Commission has been rewriting its 15-year-old guidelines intended to help parents determine which toys are appropriate for which age. It's also adding a section on computers and video games.

Troublesome Trend Toy sellers have been quietly fretting for years over the dreaded KGOY (market-speak for "kids getting older younger"). But lately the trend has been so damaging to their industry that it has been impossible to ignore.

At this year's American International Toy Fair in New York, the annual U.S. showcase for next season's toys, toy people didn't need extra reasons for gloom. Figures released this month by the show's sponsor, the Toy Industry Association Inc., showed that toy sales were again dismal:

Sales of traditional toys increased just 1.7 percent, from $24.5 billion in 2000 to $24.9 billion in 2001. The previous year, toy sales were essentially flat.

The recession and Sept. 11 were a big part of the sector's pallid performance, attendees said. Big retailers cut way back on their orders of holiday toys. But the real cause of their troubles is more fundamental: "Tweens" (kids 8 to 12) are turning to flashier forms of entertainment. Think the three m's: movies, music and the microchip.

"They've got 500 channels and VCRs and computers and PlayStation and Game Boy and the Internet," Friedman said.

There was nothing pallid, for example, about video-game sales last year. They were up 43 percent over the previous year. With video and computer gaming and the Web, kids are increasingly being siphoned away from toy play by music, organized sports and even cell phones.

"After a while you can't even call them toys. For tweens, that's death to a product," Weiskott said. Marketers struggling to push alternative products to tweens -- cell phones, home decor, karaoke machines -- have learned to "just call it 'stuff' -- 'my stuff,' " she said.

About 46 percent of households with 7- and 8-year-olds list playing with toys as their favorite pastime, but this drops to 24 percent for 9- and 10-year-olds and to 5 percent for 11- and 12-year-olds, according to the Washington-based Kotler Marketing Group.

The speeded-up evolution of child's play is happening well before small consumers are out of diapers. Take the venerable Fisher-Price brand Little People -- chubby, cylindrical characters small enough for a toddler's grip but too big to swallow. Little People started in the 1950s as toys for 24-month-olds, moved down to 18 months and are now intended by the company for 1-year-olds.

And so what's being offered for those tech-savvy 2-year-olds? The "Growing Smart Lap Top Computer" is among Fisher-Price's products for them. It looks like a tiny laptop and teaches about colors, numbers and shapes.

The company has a whole line of toys it calls Pre-Cool. "It's for children who aspire to do things they see older kids do but are not able to because it's not safe for their age," Friedman said. "Like motorized scooters that were hot last year."

For these would-be big kids, there is the Power Wheels Kawasaki Super Shock Dirt Bike being introduced this year. It goes a maximum 5 mph, "but it has a wide wheelbase, so it's stable," he said. Suggested retail price: $240. Recommended age: 3 and up.

Children's increasingly sophisticated tastes in toys have rendered the Consumer Product Safety Commission's age-appropriateness guidelines badly out of date. The old guidebook, for instance, describes fashion dolls such as Barbie as not right for girls under 6 because they are "not yet interested in fashion."

The guidelines are separate from the agency's safety measures, which are mandated by law. Still, it's up to parents to stop baby sisters from grabbing tiny accessories from their big sisters' dolls.

Digital Makeovers One way toymakers have tried to adapt to the changes is by juicing up their core brands with electronics, CD-ROMs and Web sites. Mattel, for instance, is updating its Hot Wheels cars with a new line called Planet Hot Wheels, which has a Web site that will allow any kid with an access code from the package to download a racing game. The gamer can drag-race his mini-motorcycle or slam his car into a port-a-potty, making a nice, gross sloshing sound.

Observers who follow the toy industry call such a strategy risky.

"The little metal car is the ticket to the video-game parlor, but the kid's got to wonder, 'Why do I really need this little metal car?' " said Richard Chase, a professor of psychology and behavior at the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine who consults on toy industry issues.

So what should toymakers do to reverse their fate?

"Redefine the industry as 'toyetic entertainment,' " said Paul Kurnit, president of Griffin Bacal, a marketing and research firm. What he means is, they should come up with innovative "toys" that make smart use of other entertainment sources.

He and others cite Hit-Clips, a top toy-seller last year. Little chip-based, clip-on toys, Hit-Clips play a snippet of a hit single. Already about 12 million have been sold, says the manufacturer, Tiger Electronics, a division of Hasbro Inc.

Another product being cast as a potential "savior of the industry" is the LeapPad, an interactive learning device by LeapFrog Enterprises Inc.

The LeapPad, a huge seller last Christmas, is designed to help children read books with the help of a pen that resembles the wands used on Palm handheld computers. It can download new educational content, including school curriculum material, off the company's Internet site.

The Toy Fair last week was bristling with products aimed at winning back older kids by taking a page from competitors' books.

There were karaoke machines everywhere, including one by Toymax that lets kids make their own music videos. You hook it up to the television, pop in a videotape, choose a song and sing in front of a little camera lens. You can live your J. Lo or Britney fantasy.

Spy toys were also plentiful. Their makers view them as a way to pull older kids, especially girls, into electronics. There were walkie-talkies (with those Madonna-ish headphones) and instant messagers that mimic the Internet messaging popular with kids.

"It's a lifestyle thing. Girls we tested told us they are really into spying, like listening in to their older brothers' conversations about girlfriends, for instance," said Mary Beth Moser, of Wild Planet Toys Inc.

A new Lego robotic toy lets kids download one of several spy-mission programs from a CD-ROM into the vehicle they've just built. The computer gives them tips on how to set up their room with soda cans, shoes and light sources, which the vehicle will recognize as obstacles or triggers. Another attempt to liven up the real with the virtual.

The product is intended to appeal to kids 8 and older who crave the cool robotics of Lego's Mindstorms series but aren't quite ready for them.

Whither Childhood? So, while marketers try to win back kids, parents are wondering how toys lost them in the first place. Who is responsible for this ever-earlier adolescence? The toy and entertainment industries have been attacked in recent years by both conservatives and liberals for exploiting kids through advertising.

Parents share the blame, others say, for using digital toys as electronic babysitters, for pushing computers on infants, for encouraging their kids' adult tastes.

"Baby-boomer parents who grew up wearing jeans and listening to rock think it's pretty cool that their kids wear jeans and listen to music," Kurnit said.

A parent whose child started moving a computer mouse at age 4, meanwhile, says she's glad she let him. "Jesse learned a lot from those educational games," said Julie Stein of Bethesda. "He sat on my lap, we did them together."

And yet, now that her son is 8, she sometimes feels his relationship to things electronic has gotten out of hand.

"I'll tell Jesse, he's got to get off the computer. And no PlayStation. And no Game Boy. And then he acts like there is nothing for him to do," Stein said during an interview at a bookstore. "And yet we've got this mountain of toys!"

Jesse is still capable of playing happily with his old Hot Wheels cars or Lego blocks or science kits, she said.

"But I really have to push him into it. I've got to find all the pieces and get him started playing," she said. "It's like he's forgotten how to do it."

LeapPad, an interactive learning device, helps children read books with the aid of wand-like pen.