NEW REPORT: Toys that spy on children are a growing threat

Media Contacts

LOS ANGELES – Children today face dangers that people who came of age before the smartphone era never did. In CALPIRG Education Fund’s 38th annual Trouble in Toyland report, we look at the smart devices surrounding us – things with microphones, cameras, connectivity, location trackers, poor security and more.

“It’s chilling to learn what some of these toys can do,” said Jenn Engstrom, State Director at CALPIRG Education Fund. “Interacting with some smart toys can create frightening situations for too many families.” 

Two months ago, a man kidnapped an 11-year-old girl she encountered while playing Roblox, one of the most popular mobile games. Fortunately, she was found safe a short time later, about 135 miles away from her home.

Also, this past spring, the Federal Trade Commission accused Amazon of violating the federal children’s privacy laws through its Alexa service by collecting the voices and geolocation data of children under 13 years old and using the voices and data for its own purposes.

Our kids, oblivious to these dangers, will fill their holiday wish lists with stuffed animals that listen and talk, devices that learn their habits, games with online accounts, and smart speakers, watches, play kitchens and remote cars that connect to apps or other technology. Trouble in Toyland 2023 looks at these common gifts — and the newest “must-haves” that could cause parents headaches. We tested both Meta’s newest virtual reality headset – the Quest 3 – and its new junior VR accounts aimed at children ages 10 to 12. We found using these accounts gives parents more control – but that they also fail to eliminate all concerns, such as the need for more study on how virtual reality affects young brains. The experts we spoke to recommended parents avoid VR for their kids and teens this holiday season. 

“It is no coincidence that Meta lowered the age recommendations for their VR headset just in time for the holiday shopping season,” said Rachel Franz, Education Manager at Fairplay.  “Meta has proven again and again that they are more interested in profit than protecting kids by promoting a product that exposes children to countless harms, including sexual assault, violence, racism and more. Families should avoid purchasing a Meta Quest at all costs this year.” 

Our report provides helpful summaries about how specific smart toys work and important tips and questions for parents and gift givers to ask before buying a toy with a microphone, a camera, a Wi-Fi or Bluetooth connection or any ability to collect information about young children. We also walk through what to look for in a toy’s privacy policy.

“As the mom of two young girls, I am personally motivated to ensure that Silicon Valley’s most powerful companies design their products in children’s best interest,” said Assemblymember Buffy Wicks (D-Oakland).  “That’s why I’m proud to have co-authored the California Age-Appropriate Design Code Act, which requires tech companies to install guardrails on their apps and websites for users under 18. But as CALPIRG Education Fund’s latest Trouble in Toyland report makes clear, we still need companies to do a better job ensuring the safety and privacy of our children.”

Besides smart toys, CALPIRG Education Fund looks at several low-tech threats, including water beads, recalled toys for sale, counterfeit toys, button batteries and other hazards. 

“Every year, about 150,000 children are treated in emergency rooms for toy-related injuries,” Engstrom said. “There is so much more we can do to protect them.” 

“Smart devices are the newest concern for families in this high-tech age, but low-tech hazards are still present in the home, on store shelves, and in the resale market,” said Helen Arbogast, DrPH, MPH, Manager of Injury Prevention at Children’s Hospital Los Angeles. “Nothing replaces adult supervision, especially when introducing new and exciting toys to the family. By empowering caregivers and families with the knowledge they need to navigate this holiday shopping season, we can help keep children safe and avoid preventable toy-related injuries.”