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Parents should be concerned about ‘smart toys’ and data security

Parents should know that smart toys have audio access and many have cameras.

Stuffed toys at Venezuela's 'hospital' of stuffed toys where volunteers carry out repair work before making donations to under-privileged children
Stuffed toys at Venezuela's 'hospital' of stuffed toys where volunteers carry out repair work before making donations to under-privileged children - Copyright AFP ADRIAN DENNIS
Stuffed toys at Venezuela's 'hospital' of stuffed toys where volunteers carry out repair work before making donations to under-privileged children - Copyright AFP ADRIAN DENNIS

The growing smart toy market puts millions of toys with computing power and audio and visual recording capability in children’s hands. Does this create data privacy concerns?

Parents considering gifts of digital toys for Christmas should be aware of the data collection that these toys perform and how to better protect their children’s privacy in this new domain, according to France Bélanger and Donna Wertalik, professors in the Pamplin College of Business at Virginia Tech and co-hosts of Voices of Privacy.

The two researchers are well placed to comment on this issue. France Bélanger has studied issues surrounding the topic for two decades and written about the subject for the majority of her 200 published articles. Donna Wertalik has diverse corporate and academic experience in the identification of marketing opportunities, brand management, social media engagement and measurement, and overall product development.

The  academics have written: “A smart toy is a technologically advanced toy like a robot or interactive game that will seem intelligent because it will start out behaving according to predetermined patterns, but it can alter that behaviour in response to outside stimuli. Most smart toys’ design allow them to connect to the Internet via Wi-Fi or even through a smartphone’s Bluetooth connection.”

The researchers have been using video episodes and other resources to raise general awareness of digital information privacy.

Examples of a smart toy could be a teddy bear that can teach a child how to properly eat a meal or help with potty training, or a robot doll that can dance with a child and play music.

More of these toys are coming, as the market grew from $14.1 billion in 2022 to $16.7 billion in 2023 and is expected to reach $35.1 Billion by 2027.

The researchers are keen point out that “Parents should know that smart toys have audio access and many have cameras, allowing them to record videos of not only the children but also their environment. A child’s toy can listen to everything a family says 24/7.”

Belanger and Wertalik have offered the following smart toy tips for families:

  • Check if the toy comes with a camera or microphone.
  • Read reviews available online about possible privacy concerns.
  • Read the toy’s manual to identify what the toy can collect and store.
  • Check what other information — for example, gender and location — the toy will collect.
  • Check the if the toy has a child-specific privacy policy — something every product designed for children should have.
  • Check if information the toy collected will be sent to third parties and if there is a way to turn that off.
  • Check if you can request a record of your child’s data to see what’s on file.

This advice can help to minimise the data privacy impacts that smart toys generate.

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Written By

Dr. Tim Sandle is Digital Journal's Editor-at-Large for science news. Tim specializes in science, technology, environmental, business, and health journalism. He is additionally a practising microbiologist; and an author. He is also interested in history, politics and current affairs.

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