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Privacy concerns still surround some smart toys. Experts have these tips for protecting kids

An employee stocks shelves in the toy section of a Walmart in Secaucus, N.J., Tuesday, Nov. 22, 2022.
Seth Wenig
An employee stocks shelves in the toy section of a Walmart in Secaucus, N.J., Tuesday, Nov. 22, 2022.

Holiday gift giving is upon us, and for many children, candy canes and teddy bears increasingly share stocking space with technologically savvy toys. But parents may want to be cautious before purchasing some smart toys, said Donna Wertalik a professor in the marketing department at Virginia Tech.

“You know, kids know technology better than an adult these days. But at what cost?” Wertalik said.

Technology companies have been making toys for several years that use AI technology. The toys can ask kids questions, like, ‘what is your favorite color?’ Or some can answer questions, like Siri does. But some of these toys actually share this information with other companies.

“A lot of these toys not only have audio capabilities, but they have video capabilities,” said France Belanger, a professor at Virginia Tech in the Pamplin College of Business.

“So it is possible to have a toy that’s actually recording what’s happening in the home,” Belanger said.

There are laws in the United States that require companies to get parental permission before collecting children’s information. In 2018, the Federal Trade Commission banned a doll, called Cayla, because the company that made it broke these rules.

“So the doll was actually asking children for personal information,” Belanger said.

Belanger points out that not all smart toys are bad, and some can help teach kids.

“You know, there’s a teddy bear that can teach a kid to eat their meals properly, or to go potty,” Belanger said.

But she said it’s important for adults to take the time to learn how companies share their kids’ information. And if possible, disable the settings that allow toys to collect information.

Companies already collect lots of information about us on social media.

“There’s hundreds tracking the children,” said Wertalik. “And nobody has any clue of this, so smart toys are just tied right into all of that as well.”

Wertalik advises parents to look up privacy policies for each toy company, before you select a toy for a kid, and find out if they share information with third parties.

If those policies aren’t clear, or if parents can’t disable the toy’s ability to collect information, it may be best to steer clear of that toy, especially for toys that connect to the internet.

Donna Wertalik and France Belanger host a podcast called Voices of Privacy, where they discuss privacy concerns with technology. Their newest episode discusses smart toys.


Updated: December 12, 2023 at 9:56 AM EST
Editor's Note: Radio IQ is a service of Virginia Tech.

Roxy Todd is Radio IQ's New River Valley Bureau Chief.