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

Media Contacts

BOSTON – Children today face dangers that people who came of age before the smartphone era never did. At a press conference today, MASSPIRG was joined by child safety and privacy advocates to release MASSPIRG Education Fund’s 38th annual Trouble in Toyland report, which looked at the smart devices surrounding us – things with microphones, cameras, connectivity, location trackers, poor security and more. In addition to smart toys, MASSPIRG Education Fund looked at several low-tech threats, including water beads, button batteries and recalled and counterfeit toys for sale. 

MASSPIRG demonstrated how some of the smart toys worked, showcased recently purchased recalled toys, and how the popular water beads pose a threat to children.

“It’s chilling to learn what some of these toys can do,” said R.J.Cross, director, Don’t Sell My Data, PIRG and one of the report authors. “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 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 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. 

“Tech toy companies would have us believe that connected, smart toys make the best holiday presents for kids. They don’t,” said David Monahan, Campaign Director at Fairplay. “As PIRG’s Trouble in Toyland report makes clear, plugging your child into smart toys threatens their privacy and wellbeing. The immersive worlds of virtual reality exemplify how Big Tech uses kids and teens as guinea pigs—exposing them to abuse, predators, and impacts which we’re only starting to learn about. Kudos to PIRG for sharing the recommendation of experts: steer clear of Meta’s Quest VR headset this holiday season.”

“Every year, about 150,000 children are treated in emergency rooms for toy-related injuries,” said Deirdre Cummings, Consumer Program Director, MASSPIRG Education Fund. “There is so much more we can do to protect them, for starters, I should not have been able to purchase these toys that have already been recalled because of their risk to children.” 

The 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. The report also walks through what to look for in a toy’s privacy policy.

MASSPIRG demonstrated how some of the smart toys worked, and showcased recently purchased recalled toys, and how the popular water beads pose a threat to children.

MASSPIRG also released a toy safety guide on how to avoid unsafe toys.

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