by Lynette Owens
This article originally appeared in the Huffington Post on December 12, 2017.
As you shop for the kids and teens on your list, you may be considering some of the cool options out there, either because they are asking for it or because you think they will love it. Whatever your motivation, smart toys – those that use technology in order to function in innovative ways that are fun, engaging, educational or all of the above – may be on that shopping list.
And you wouldn’t be alone. The global smart toys industry is projected to be about 4.9 billion by the end of 2017 according to Juniper Research, with about 224 million smart toys projected to be shipped worldwide by year’s end. While this is still a small percentage of the total global toy market (which was $88.8 billion in 2016 per The NPD Group), experts believe it will experience rapid growth, tripling to $15.5 billion in five years. If you’re not buying a smart toy for anyone this year, chances are you may very well be in the near future.
Despite these trends, the toy industry still does not appear to be putting the online safety and privacy of our children at the top of their “features”. Many smart toys that are connected to the internet seem to have embraced the “wow” factor over the “we care” factor. We’ve seen many examples in recent years and days of toy manufacturers who’ve done this, from smart dolls, to smart watches, to a talking toucan. In July of this year, the FBI warned consumers of the security and privacy risks with smart toys, issuing a public service announcement that also provides recommendations on using them safely.
If you’re still intent on buying one of these (not always cheap) toys for the kids in your life, please do your homework and go in with your eyes wide open. And help your young recipients be smart about using their new smart toys, too. Read the reviews and news about the toy if available. Unfortunately, so many smart toys are so new to the market that many of them do not have a history of news or reviews for you to lean on. So here are a few things to consider before and after you buy one:
- Ask questions. Make sure you know and are comfortable with the answers to these questions:
- Why is the toy connected to the internet?
- What personal information does this toy need from you in order to function? Is it information you input (name, address, age, etc.)? Is it passively collecting personal information (location, voices or other biometric information, etc.)?
- How is this information used and stored? Who else has access to it and how do they use it?
- How is this information protected?
- Can you opt out of this information being collected or shared?
- Create a Safe Environment. As advised in the FBI warning, there are several things you should do to ensure your child’s and family’s safety including:
- Use strong passwords when opening any account or registration for the toy.
- Connect only to trusted and secure WiFi networks.
- Ensure the latest software updates are installed.
- Turn the toy off, especially those with microphones or cameras, when not in use.
- Give and Teach. Once the child in your life starts using their new smart toy:
- Remind them that it’s connected to the internet, which makes it a very powerful toy, and that they should be careful with the information they are transmitting through it.
- Try to use it with them if you can, so you can explain in context the information it may be collecting at the time it’s collecting it, and how it’s being used or shared with others.
- Encourage them to let you know if they think something is wrong or worrisome about how the toy is functioning.
Until we get to a point when there are more standards and legal requirements around how smart toys are built and how they are permitted to collect, transmit, and protect any personal information, we need to stay vigilant as consumers. Our kids may love us for giving them a gift that thrills them, but let’s do it wisely. Lastly, enjoy time together with your kids using the toy if you can. Any toys – smart or not – that encourage us to strengthen bonds with our kids are the smartest toys of all.
Lynette Owens is Vice President of Global Consumer Education & Marketing at Trend Micro and Founder of the Internet Safety for Kids and Families program. With 25+ years in the tech industry, Lynette speaks and blogs regularly on how to help kids become great digital citizens. She works with communities and 1:1 school districts across the U.S. and around the world to support online safety, digital and media literacy and digital citizenship education. She is a board member of the National Association for Media Literacy Education, an advisory committee member of the Digital Wellness Lab, and serves on the advisory boards of INHOPE and U.S. Safer Internet Day.
Follow her on Twitter @lynettetowens.