We expect toys to be fun, not dangerous. But sometimes there are safety issues.
Here are tips to make sure toys you buy or that your children already have are safe, and stay safe after months or years of hard play. We also talk about the importance of adhering to warning labels. And we include tips on spotting counterfeit toys and techy products that can invade your children’s privacy.
For everyone with all toys:
Carefully check toys, both when they’re new and every so often to see whether there’s wear and tear. You’re particularly looking for any parts that are loose or could easily break off and be swallowed or cut the child.
Evaluate whether particular toys are appropriate for your children, starting with the minimum age warning label. But even if your child is “old enough,” they may not be able to be trusted to play with the toy as intended. In addition, consider whether your child is also responsible enough to keep the toy out of reach of any younger children.
Be leery of toys from unfamiliar sellers or international sellers. They may be more likely to sell counterfeit toys or toys that don’t meet U.S. safety standards.
When researching a toy, check whether the manufacturer has its own, official website. “A responsible, legitimate company will have their own website,” said Joan Lawrence, senior vice president of Standards and Regulatory Affairs for The Toy Association in New York. “They also will likely sell their product directly on their site or will have a list of official retailers with links to purchase.” If there is a website, pay attention to red flags like typos, spelling mistakes and poorly photoshopped pictures in the product’s online description.
Research reviews of a toy. Pay attention to negative reviews and if there aren’t many reviews at all, which could suggest a problem.
Look for labeling on toys that says it’s non-toxic.
Make sure that anything that’s electric says it’s UL-approved.
Vintage toys are great for the memories, but be wary of toys made before 2008, when the Consumer Product Safety Improvement Act took effect. Toys that comply with that law are safer in many ways. The law set new limits on lead, phthalates and heavy metals, and requires third-party testing to make sure toys meet ASTM F963-17, which is the Standard Consumer Safety Specification for Toy Safety that covers a range of potential hazards in toys.
Report incidents involving toys to the CPSC at saferproducts.gov
For younger children:
For any toys with plastic film coverings on toys to protect them during shipping, be sure to remove the film. It can post a choking hazard to children.
Keep small balls, blocks and other toys with small parts out of reach from children younger than 3.
High-powered tiny magnets are now prohibited from being manufactured. But the new federal rule doesn’t affect magnets that may be in people’s homes. If you have children or teens in your home, you shouldn’t have tiny magnets, the American Academy of Pediatrics says. Also explain to your kids how dangerous these magnets are, in case they come across them at a friend’s house.
Keep deflated balloons away from children younger than 8 and keep your ears open for an inflated balloon that pops. Balloons that haven’t been blown up and ones that have broken are a choking hazard.
For children younger than 18 months, keep them away from toys with any strings, straps, or cords longer than 12 inches.
If there are batteries, especially button batteries, make sure the compartments are secure and can’t be opened by a young child. In addition, make sure to never leave new or used batteries where children can reach them.
Watch out for painted jewelry, cheap metal or other toys with paint that seems to chip off easily. We know young children often put things in their mouths. The objects could contain lead, which is particularly harmful to children’s developing brains and nervous systems.
For older children:
For scooters, hoverboards and other riding toys, require your child to wear safety gear – particularly helmets that fit properly, said Dr. Jerri Rose, associate division chief of pediatric emergency medicine, UH-Rainbow Babies & Children’s Hospital in Cleveland. Also make sure they understand how to ride on streets shared by vehicles that can injure or kill them. Just because a child is a certain age doesn’t automatically mean they can be trusted. “Maybe they’re not ready to be responsible,” Rose said. “Parents need to make sure their child is able to handle those in a safe way.”
For those with techy toys:
If you are thinking of buying your child an internet-connected toy:
Research the toy’s potential safety risks before buying. Ensure there are no reports of a toy posing known dangers to children. Search 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
- Level of individual personalization the toy is programmed to accomplish
Features that can be helpful:
- Parental safety controls
- Ability to set time limits
Look for toys with a physical component to connect it 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 terms and conditions. Terms and conditions aren’t fun or easy to read, but when it comes to toys, it’s important for parents to read enough to try and find answers to key questions. These include:
- If the toy has a microphone or a camera, is it recording your child’s interactions with it? Are those communications transferred anywhere? To whom, and for what purpose?
- Is the toy collecting any other information about your child, or transferring it to any company that isn’t the manufacturer? Best to find manufacturers and toys that don’t share any data at all.
- How long does the company keep your child’s data on file? The company should only keep data for as long as is required to fulfill its play function. If the policy doesn’t explicitly state how long the company keeps data, this can be a red flag.
- Does the company state it is allowed to change terms and conditions without notifying you? This can be a red flag, too.
Unfortunately, it’s possible you won’t find the answers to all of these questions in the terms and conditions or privacy policies. These documents can be purposefully vague and omit important information. If this is the case, it’s safer to find a different toy made by a company that takes the security of children more seriously.
Supervise playtime, especially with younger kids. Establish with your child that playtime with the toy is only 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.
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 web-enabled toys and their companion apps will issue periodic updates. Make sure to stay on top of these.
Consumer Watchdog, U.S. PIRG Education Fund
Teresa directs the Consumer Watchdog office, which looks out for consumers' health, safety and financial security. Prior to her current role, she worked as a journalist and columnist covering consumer issues and personal finance for two decades for Ohio's largest daily newspaper. She is the recipient of dozens of state and national journalism awards, including Best Columnist in Ohio, Best Business Writer in Ohio, and National Headliner Award for coverage of the 2008-09 financial crisis. Among the accomplishments she’s most proud of is receiving a journalism public service award for exposing improper billing practices by Verizon that affected at least 15 million customers nationwide. Her work caused Verizon to reach an $80 million settlement with the FCC, the largest ever imposed at that time. Teresa and her husband live in Greater Cleveland and have two sons and a dog. She enjoys biking, house projects and music, and serves on her church missions team and stewardship board.