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

Media Contacts
Abe Scarr

State Director, Illinois PIRG Education Fund

Children today face dangers that people who came of age before the smartphone era never did. In Illinois 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 Abe Scarr, director of Illinois PIRG Education Fund. “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 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.

“Toys should bring joy to consumers, not harm. For 38 years, the Illinois PIRG Education Fund (PIRG) has released the Trouble in Toyland report, which has resulted in federal legislation and many corrective actions by the Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) and toy manufacturers. As a longtime consumer advocate in Congress, who most recently passed legislation to help prevent the sale of stolen, dangerous, and counterfeit products online, I am proud to continue my work with Illinois PIRG to improve the safety of toys and other children’s products,” said Congresswoman Jan Schakowsky. “This year’s report, which focuses on smart toys, is extremely timely given the rise of artificial intelligence. Protections must be put in place to safeguard the privacy and personal information of consumers. Parents have an expectation that the products they purchase around their home and for their children are safe, but unfortunately, that is not always the case. Last year, 100 children’s products were recalled, the highest number since 2013. We must reign in the excessive power of companies and further empower the CPSC to improve product safety and better protect consumers and children. To report a dangerous product or to check if a product has been recalled, go to”

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

“As parents, guardians and caregivers prepare for this holiday season, I encourage shoppers to utilize free resources to make sure they do not inadvertently purchase recalled or unsafe children’s products,” said Illinois Attorney General Kwame Raoul. “Checking PIRG’s annual toy safety report, as well as watching for the tips my office will release on social media throughout the holiday season will help you ensure the little ones on your shopping lists stay safe this holiday.”

“This year’s Trouble in Toyland report from Illinois PIRG once again will help parents and gift givers consider possible risks when buying toys for children this holiday season,” said Nancy Cowles, executive director of Kids In Danger.  “The dangers of ingestion of button or coin cell batteries from both children’s products and household items, magnets, and the emerging hazard of water beads should make parents look elsewhere for gifts.  Water beads that start as small as a bead or cupcake sprinkle can grow up to 1,500 times its size if ingested or inhaled to cause blockages and other health issues.  No amount of supervision will protect children once these tiny bouncy beads are in a home or child care/school setting.”

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