Toys can be tricky

Children’s toys that can connect to the internet featured in eNACSO’s recent publication (June, 2016) When ‘free’ isn’t . They were also the principal topic of conversation at a workshop organized earlier this month at the IGF entitled The Internet of Toys and Things. It was standing-room only. This is clearly a hot-button item and it is likely to get hotter. It’s not hard to work out why.

First of all the repeated stories about  fake news and security failures have lead one distinguished, independent commentator to question whether or not the internet as a whole is becoming the equivalent of a failed statethat is to say  a place where we go at our peril because law, order and security can no longer be guaranteed. Who wants their children playing in or with a failed state?

A concrete illustration of this failed state idea occurred in October with the Mirai-driven distributed denial of service attack which, inter alia, took Twitter, Netflix and CNN offline, even if only briefly. Here the culpable botnet was utilising household and other objects which form part of the internet of things. Toys might well have been among them.

Toys are a sub-set of the internet of things but they are quite distinct in a very obvious respect: they are close to our children. Extremely close. Thus to the extent that we lose confidence in the security and stability of the internet of things, or its ability to respect our privacy,  so parents’ willingness to engage with connected toys is likely to reduce, possibly even vanish altogether. That would be a great pity because there is little doubt that the potential for children and young people to benefit from greater connectedness and interactivity with smart systems seems almost self-evident. But there are limits. Or ought to be.

Up to now in this blog I have been speaking only of the security and legal dimenions of privacy in terms of what can happen or what can go wrong with connected toys.  But there is a larger question which has nothing to do with privacy, security or current laws. It is to do with parenting.

It would be wrong to think that all connected toys are subject to identical risks or raise identical parenting concerns. They aren’t and they don’t. Moreover interactive games and toys have been around for a long time with few, if any, ill effects.  However, with the huge advances in AI , algorithms, and processing power, never mind the connectedness of the internet, modern toys are surpassing anything we have ever seen before or could have imagined. Thus, on top of the privacy or legal concerns, it seems clear to me that a number of profound ethical issues are hoving into view. These need to be discussed and debated in a neutral environment.

The US-based Family Online Safety Institute  have published Kids & the Connected Home.  It is one of the first and best reports of its kind, comprehensively documenting the range and different types of connected toys currently on the market. Its account of the history of technology and toys is also excellent. But FOSI most decidedly is not neutral ground. Its starting point appears to be:  ours not to reason why, here is another technological advance which, by definition must be good, so let’s look for a pathway that will ensure it succeeds. This is perfectly honourable, if a million miles away from being the full story in a case like this.

Contrast FOSI’s approach with that of Professor Sherry Turkle speaking about one very connected toy:  the Barbie doll.

Children naturally confide in their dolls and share their deepest feelings. At a tender age, they need to have their feelings genuinely heard and validated, and they should be sympathized with, uplifted, and supported. Children learn best from sincere dialogue with a real listener.


Some of the toys available today record entire conversations and not only send them to the parents – but also to people and/or machines in remote locations who doubtless can or will analyze them in many different ways. Am I the only one who feels a little unsettled by all this? As someone at the eNACSO workshop said

It’s one thing occasionally to tiptoe up to your child’s bedroom door and listen in as they say their prayers but to get everything they ever say? That’s spooky.

Somebody somewhere needs to call a halt while we all take a breath and think this through, not just as a privacy issue. Not just as a technical challenge confronting companies in terms of how to give parents confidence in the privacy dimensions of their products so they will buy them but in terms of what this might be doing to parenting and to children’s development. We have been agonising over whether it is right or how to use robots to look after the elderly. We also need to agonise a lot more about putting robots into the complex path of our children’s emotional development.




About John Carr

John Carr is one of the world's leading authorities on children's and young people's use of digital technologies. He is Senior Technical Adviser to Bangkok-based global NGO ECPAT International and is Secretary of the UK's Children's Charities' Coalition on Internet Safety. John is now or has formerly been an Adviser to the Council of Europe, the UN (ITU), the EU and UNICEF. John has advised many of the world's largest technology companies on online child safety. John's skill as a writer has also been widely recognised.
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