Life has become increasingly digital, and that includes the toys our children play with. Electronic toys increasingly include technology like internet connections or artificial intelligence software that learns about your child and personalizes play. Every year, more high-tech toys are hitting the market. Smart toy revenue is forecasted to reach $18 billion by 2023 – a nearly 200% increase from 2018.
These toys can offer features parents and kids may want, but they also bring new types of risk. Given their rapidly growing popularity, now is the time for parents to think carefully about whether to bring these toys into the home, and if so, how to do it safely.
What are smart toys?
Smart toys have high-tech features like a WiFi or Bluetooth connection, technologies such as microphones, cameras and sensors, or integration with artificial intelligence programs. Common types of internet-connected and smart toys include dolls, robots and interactive games.
Some smart toys have conversations with kids, using an internet connection to transmit a child’s words to outside servers, where the manufacturer can use speech recognition or artificial intelligence technology to prompt the toy to talk back. Other smart toys have features like facial recognition, allowing a toy to recognize and greet a person by name. Other internet-connected toys are used with a companion app that can allow a child to use a screen to control a toy’s movement.
Smart toys come with dangers that can put children’s safety and security at risk. They can gather a lot of data about children and may share it with other companies, making your child’s data more likely to be exposed during a breach or hack.
Read the full Smart Decisions about Smart Toys report here.
Are smart toys safe?
Before buying a smart toy, parents should be aware of the risks. These range from excessive data collection to bad actors using a toy to communicate with a child.
What are the risks of smart toys?
Smart toys collect, store and use a lot of data about children.
Smart toy manufacturers may partner with other firms in order to process and store data, and may reserve the right to share your child’s data with other parties, including advertisers.
Kids may disclose a lot of information to a toy they consider a friend, not realizing it’s a company on the other end doing the listening and the talking.
Watch this CBS Mornings piece on our report, and a deeper look at the Fuzzible Friends toy.
Smart toy microphones and cameras can pose safety concerns.
If hacked, connected toys can be used to eavesdrop on kids. A conversational doll, My Friend Cayla, had an unsecured Bluetooth connection, enabling anyone nearby to use the doll as a microphone and potentially talk to children. The FBI has warned parents that toys with microphones may collect conversations that happen within earshot, even when a toy isn’t being played with.
Breaches and hacks can expose children’s data.
The more data a company gathers on your child, and the more companies it shares it with, the more likely your child’s information is to be subject to a breach. In 2015, the largest ever hack of kids’ information exposed the names, birthdays, genders and in some cases photos and voice recordings of 6.4 million children.
In-app purchases can cost parents money.
Apps can use deceptive tricks to nudge kids to make unsupervised in-app purchases, such as having favorite characters encourage paid-for upgrades. One 6-year-old spent over $16,000 before his parents realized.
Smart toys may gather data on children and use it for marketing.
Smart toys may log your child’s preferences over time, and manufacturers could make that data available to advertisers. The ad industry invests heavily in advertising to kids. An industry trade report suggested marketing can be done to kids as young as age 3.
Smart toys can also use “stealth marketing” touting brands and products to your child. Using trusted fictional characters makes it hard for kids to understand they’re interacting with an ad.
Platforms may include inappropriate content for download.
Toys with a companion website where kids can download content from other users can lack safeguards for age-appropriateness.
In 2019, the non-profit Which? and the cybersecurity firm NCC Group found toys where users could upload inappropriate content to companion web portals. For example, a build-your-own video game that teaches kids basic coding skills, Bloxels, has an online arcade where users can upload their designed games. Researchers were able to upload a game that featured swearing and make it available to all other users.
Some smart toys may hinder the development of young children.
Researchers have raised concerns that conversational smart toys may negatively impact young children’s language development and social skills. They may also hamper creativity during playtime.
Should I buy my child a smart toy?
Before buying a smart toy, parents should do their homework. Here are some tips for anyone thinking about buying a smart toy.
Before buying a smart toy
- Make sure the toy is age appropriate – Know what age range the toy is designed for, and understand the reason those recommendations exist. For example, conversational toys and smart speakers aren’t good fits for young children developing language skills. That said, each child develops on their own trajectory. By understanding the reasons for age recommendations, you’re in a better position to make the right choice for your child.
- Research the toy’s potential safety risks before buying – Ensure there are no reports of a toy posing known dangers to children. Search for the toy manufacturer online to see if there are any news reports or government actions against it for violating privacy standards, and avoid those with a spotty record. Looking up reviews of the toy may also help you identify toys that have made parents feel uncomfortable.
- Understand all of the toy’s features – Make sure you understand exactly what the toy can do. Consider what features will work best for your family.
Features to consider carefully:
- Cameras, microphones or sensors
- Chat functions
- Location sharing
- In-app purchases
- Programming to accomplish a high level of individual personalization
Features that can be helpful:
- Parental safety controls
- Ability to set time limits
- Ability to turn the toy completely off
- A “touch to talk” feature, so you control when a device is “listening”
- Look for toys with a physical component to connect them to the internet – This can even be as simple as having a button on the toy you must press in order to link it to other devices. Ensuring someone must physically interact with the toy helps cut down on the risks of strangers abusing its internet connection. Some toys will require you to enter a password in an app to connect with the toy. This is a good feature to have, but physical requirements are best.
- Read the fine print – Look at the terms & conditions and privacy policies for answers to key questions like: what data does the toy gather about my child, what does the manufacturer use it for, and does the manufacturer share my child’s data with other companies?We have a guide on how to read a smart toy’s fine print.
Playing safely with a smart toy in the home
- Supervise playtime, especially with younger kids – Establish with your child that playtime with the toy only happens with parental supervision. This helps to ensure that if someone is hacking and using the toy to interact with your child, you can take action immediately. Be sure these toys are used in shared spaces, instead of children’s bedrooms.
- Turn it off – Always turn the toy off when not in use. For younger children, store it in a place your child can’t reach when playtime is over to ensure they can’t turn it on without supervision, re-enabling the toy to pose unmonitored risks.
- Stay on top of security updates – Many WiFi-enabled toys and their companion apps will issue periodic updates. Make sure to stay on top of these.
Trouble in Toyland 2022
Director, Don't Sell My Data Campaign, U.S. PIRG Education Fund; Policy Analyst, Frontier Group
R.J. focuses on data privacy issues and the commercialization of personal data in the digital age. Her work ranges from consumer harms like scams and data breaches, to manipulative targeted advertising, to keeping kids safe online. In her work at Frontier Group, she has authored research reports on government transparency, predatory auto lending and consumer debt. Her work has appeared in WIRED magazine, CBS Mornings and USA Today, among other outlets. When she’s not protecting the public interest, she is an avid reader, fiction writer and birder.