Watchdog Report warns: Smart toys recording and tracking children

The race may seem on between Santa’s omnipresence and smart toys, as per the recent watchdog report. Named “Trouble in Toyland 2023,” the U.S. Public Interest Research Group Education Fund’s (US PIRG) article raises concern over the surging trend of toys incorporated with artificial intelligence.

This report lays out a list of toys that have concerning spy-like technology woven into them, along with guidance on how to handle the issue. These days, even seemingly basic toys and games are powered by data-gathering A.I., equipped with cameras, microphones, GPS tracking, and the capability to connect to the internet or Bluetooth.

The report highlighted that a lot of these toys, such as mini soccer balls and play doctor’s kits, are designed for children as young as 3 years old. For instance, Fisher Price’s Smart Toy Bear, meant for children aged between 3 and 8, had the capability to listen, talk, and record conversations. But due to the app’s susceptibility to hacking, the product was discontinued in 2019.

In a related incident, an 11-year-old girl from New Jersey was reportedly abducted by a man who initially made contact with her on Roblox, a popular gaming platform. Roblox, however, evaded the allegation that the two met on their platform, as reported by The New York Post.

In a news release, Teresa Murray, the co-author of the PIRG report, voiced her concerns, saying, “It’s chilling to learn what some of these toys can do. Smart toys can be useful, fun or educational, but interacting with some of them can create frightening situations for too many families.”

The report also cautioned about potential health risks. For instance, it pointed out the uncertain effects of virtual reality and Meta Quest headsets on the developing brains of children. “It’s just not worth the risk right now,” said Dr. Mark Bertin, a developmental pediatrician and assistant professor of pediatrics at New York Medical College, as cited by PIRG.

As a solution, the report suggested various steps that parents should take to safeguard their children, including understanding whether the toy connects to the internet, knowing when the toy’s microphone or camera is recording, checking the toy’s specific privacy policy, and researching the toy company for any history of controversy or privacy concerns.

Smart toys are now an undeniable reality. The global market for such toys has surged to $16.65 billion in 2023, and it’s projected to reach $35.11 billion by 2027, according to Research and Markets, a global market research firm.

The increasing popularity of smart toys is a matter of serious concern, and parents should be vigilant about the potential privacy and health risks posed by these high-tech playthings.


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