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

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Water beads, counterfeits, recalled toys also analyzed in 38th annual ‘Trouble in Toyland’ report 

CLEVELAND – Children today face dangers that people who came of age before the smartphone era never did. In PIRG 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 Teresa Murray, Consumer Watchdog at U.S. PIRG Education Fund and co-author of the report. “Smart toys can be useful, fun or educational, but interacting with some of them can create frightening situations for too many families.” 

Two months ago, a man kidnapped an 11-year-old girl he 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 federal children’s privacy laws through its Alexa service by keeping the voice recordings of children indefinitely, even when parents requested they be deleted. Amazon also gathered geolocation data and used childrens’ transcripts 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. 

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.

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

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

U.S. PIRG Education Fund is holding a virtual news conference to discuss the report on Thursday, Nov. 16, at 2:00 p.m. ET. The panel will discuss these dangers and offer helpful tips to protect children of all ages. The following experts will join Teresa Murray and R.J. Cross, the authors of this year’s Trouble in Toyland report:

  • Alexander Hoehn-Saric, chair, Consumer Product Safety Commission, Washington.
  • Dr. Jerri Rose, emergency medicine pediatrician, University Hospitals Rainbow Babies & Children’s Hospital, Cleveland.
  • Joan Lawrence, senior vice president of standards and regulatory affairs, The Toy Association, New York.
  • Dev Gowda, deputy director, Kids In Danger (KID), Chicago. 

Registration is required to attend the virtual news conference. Register here to join via Zoom.