Toys have come a long way. They’re smarter. They’re Wi-Fi connected. They can talk to children and become their new best friend. And for some experts, that might be a potential problem that could hinder children’s development and put their data at risk.
Many connected toys interact with children. Some might record their names or address them by name. Others can answer questions or hold a conversation with children – to a point, as in the case of My Friend Cayla, the first Internet-connected smart doll, My Friend Teddy, and Mattel’s Hello Barbie doll.
For Psychologist Larry Rosen of California State University at Dominguez Hills, putting these types of toys in the hands of young children is okay so long as “there is no ulterior motive in the interactions.” The activity, he added, “promotes creative play that helps the brain develop those areas.”
Technology, being auditory, visual, tactile and kinesthetic, activates more of the brain than other pastimes. Playing with LEGO bricks might activate the creative part of the child’s brain. Playing a smartphone game might activate the brain’s problem-solving areas.
In a world of constant distractions, Rosen said it might be a good thing if “these kinds of toys or games can help a child learn to focus for 5, 10, 15 minutes … as long as it’s not overdone.” But for him, the major issue with connected toys is that “they are compelling and that they keep your focus and attention on something that may not be healthy.”
“My rule of thumb with young children is you never let a child use a piece of technology for more than about a half-hour at a time and that … you then use 3-5 times that amount of time to let them engage in creative play, in the kind of play that stimulates other parts of the brain that [are] important for their development.”
Playing with connected toys, tablets and smartphones is a “highly active” exercise, said Rosen, compared to passively watching a television show, for example.
“It is highly engaging,” he cautioned. “And from what we’re seeing from all the research, it does tend to overactivate the brain in certain areas.”
While good research on children and brain scanning is lacking, Rosen said keeping a child’s brain focused on one activity for a long time will stimulate the area of the brain related to that activity, leaving out other areas the child also needs developed. And using connected toys as pacifiers for young children for extended periods of time can also be harmful.
“They derive cues from their Mom’s smile, from the proximity of the Mom’s face, from other children, from Dad,” said Rosen. “As they grow up to learn what facial expression means, what body language means – and this is very important to their future social interactions – kids who grow up basically isolated and only getting interaction with say parents and toys are going to grow up in a way that may affect their ability to communicate effectively with their peers in the future.”
Limiting communication to inanimate objects, dubbed as human or human-like, deprives children of “those all-important non-verbal cues that you should be getting from communicating with real human beings,” said Rosen.
From a developmental standpoint, it is “probably better for children to have dolls that don’t talk so that they can have their imaginary conversation,” said Angela Campbell of Georgetown University’s School of Law. “They can have both sides of the conversation just playing with toys without being programmed.”
Some toys do not respond very responsively. Campbell cited Hello Barbie as an example.
“You’ll be talking about something and then she’ll say, ‘well, let’s talk about fashion’ … So she kind of tries to steer the conversation in certain directions, which I think is troubling,” she said.
Mattel has not responded to Techtonics’ requests for comment. But Rosen said it is important to understand that these kinds of toys are “designed for a purpose.” Parents have to decide if that purpose – be it education, data-collection for research or marketing – has any value for their children.
Nevertheless, marketing that is done “in a subtle way and is wrapped up inside of a device that purports to be doing something else” is a concern for Rosen, particularly with children, whose ability to understand something like subtle marketing or data-collection does not develop fully until they are in their 20s.
In some cases, parents have to consent to the manufacturer’s privacy policies online before their kids can play with toys like Hello Barbie, which records its conversations with children and saves them elsewhere.
But both Rosen and Campbell agreed that few parents read privacy policies. Those typically contain – often in convoluted legal language – articles that detail how manufacturers plan to store and use their information and their children’s information without their consent.
If such data must be saved, Campbell said people should demand that their private information be kept private and that it be stored in a safe manner, given how easy it is for hackers to access personal data these days, even from connected toys.
This will become a bigger concern as the world gets more entangled in connectivity and Wi-Fi-enabled toys. Privacy laws that protect children under the age of 13 exist in many countries. But in some cases, as with the 1998 U.S. Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act, laws trail the technology that is transforming the way people work, communicate and play.