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Are Smart Toys Safe?
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Are Smart Toys Safe?

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By: Dr Justin Coulson

There is a toy revolution building. Kids toys are becoming smarter. It’s part of the “internet of things”, which basically means that every “thing” you can buy can be connected to the Internet.

Toy developers are finding new – and amazing – ways to integrate technology into the toy cupboard. This means that next time your four-year-old asks for yet another dinosaur – to which you will most probably inwardly groan – you’ll find that the new ones are different! The toy manufacturers will assure you, despite any empirical evidence to support their claims – that the new ‘smart’ dinosaur is great for cognitive development (it says so right on the box!). It can answer the million questions your child asks daily. And if it doesn’t have the answer, there’s a team of analysists or engineers out there who update the answers the toy can give based on your child’s question. This is a learning dinosaur! And everything it learns, it can teach your child. 

Spelling? Check. 

Games? Check. 

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Guided mediation? Check! 

New smart toys come with games and stories and easy set-up. What’s more, you can personalise them to your child, and because of their “learning” capabilities these toys are constantly evolving. 

Some experts suggest, however, that there are dangers implicit in this new wave of connected toys that “listen”. These dangers typically revolve around privacy and security concerns. As an example, toys that encourage conversations with children have microphones and receivers. If a toy hears something, it’s probably transmitting that information as well. 

New research  studying the interactions of children with smart toys concludes kids are often unaware that others might hear what they say to their toy. Stories abound regarding children sharing personal information with the toy, with toys transmitting voice messages, internet history and location data. In some cases, this has led to identity theft, online scams and, most worrying, exploitation of your child. 

The  research  also showed that parents were also often unconcerned over privacy and security risks. (After all, “who’d want to listen in to, or watch, my kid in their bedroom?”). Some parents mistakenly believe that the toy manufacturers would have adequate security measures in place (much like Apple’s Siri). But toy companies do not have the same comprehensive cybersecurity systems that companies such as Apple or Google do. 

toy

A toy called “My Friend Cayla” was banned in Germany because it contained an unsecured Bluetooth device that could allow strangers to listen in on, and even talk to, the  children  using the toy. In fact, a Bluetooth device would allow an eavesdropper to listen in through the doll from a radius of 10 meters and even through several walls. 

In the United States, personal information, photos and voice recordings stored on internet-connected stuffed animals called “Cloud Pets” were found to be accessible in a poorly secured internet  database. Anyone could access the information on the exposed database and at some point someone did, and even tried to hold the information for  ransom. 

It’s such a serious issue that the FBI has  encouraged  consumers to “consider cyber security prior to introducing smart, interactive, internet-connected toys into their homes”. They advise that smart toys often contain sensors, mics, and cameras, and may have other capabilities such as speech recognition and GPS. These things could put the privacy and safety of your children at risk.  

Suddenly the claims made by the company manufacturing your child’s toy dinosaur take on new meanings. 

First, the dino is designed to engage children in conversation and encourages them to ask questions. But this also means it’s receiving potentially private information from your child. 

Second, it is easy set up. What this means is that once you’ve connected the dinosaur to Wi-Fi, it stays connected. All the time. 

Third, it’s personalised, so it remembers what your child shares. All the information your child provides is being streamed and stored. 

Fourth, it’s “constantly evolving” or, in other words, there is someone out there listening to your child, and updating the toy’s responses to better engage them. 

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In today’s world of instant connectivity, it’s not enough to hope that the manufacturers of smart toys and internet-connected goods are protecting our kids. We, as parents, have to do that. Be aware of the transmission and data capabilities of the devices (and toys) your children have, whether it’s a toy dinosaur, a smart watch, or the next big thing this Christmas. We need to understand how our private information is being shared and the security measures and disclosure and privacy policies of each company we purchase from. We need to do our own research to understand if (and where) there are risks for our families. And we always need to monitor our children’s use of smart toys. 

There is one more consideration when it comes to smart toys. It’s this: research is showing that our kids are doing less well psychologically than ever before. They’re connecting with their screens and smart devices more than they’re connecting with us. To be happy, healthy, and resilient, they need connection with us far more than they need connection with toys, devices, and WiFi. And they need connection with “outside” and other people!  So before introducing smart toys, or any new tech gadget to your home, become aware of the risks. And, perhaps more importantly, educate your children. Use these items as an opportunity to start a conversation with your kids about online safety and how the internet works. Focus on building relationship connections rather than data connections. 

New technology can be overwhelming for parents. In many ways we are exploring a new world. But with consideration and education we can incorporate the best of technology into our lives, while maintaining the safety of our kids. 

Article supplied with thanks to Happy Families.

About the Author: A sought after public speaker and author, and former radio broadcaster, Justin has a psychology degree from the University of Queensland and a PhD in psychology from the University of Wollongong.