Toys that Listen: A Study of Parents, Children, and Internet-Connected Toys


A report from the University of Washington studies parents' and children's interactions with general-purpose connected devices and connected toys. There are numerous privacy issues: toy companies may collect masses of children's intimate data; the toys may enable parents to spy on their children, and criminals hacking these systems may be able to identify and locate the children. For example, the 2015 cyber attack on VTech, a children's tablet maker, exposed the personal data of 5 million parents and over 200,000 children, including pictures and chat logs.

Many children already interact with connected devices and responsive systems such as the Amazon Echo, Siri, Cortana, Alexa, and Google Now. These are intended to fade into the background even though they're always listening, while toys are specifically targeted at children. Children find the toys frustratingly limited by comparison. Parents are concerned about how much control they can exercise over the toys and when and how much the toys record.

To answer parents' concerns, the researchers recommend: toy designers should reevaluate the need to record and store children's conversations, and indicate clearly when they are recording. To improve child engagement: toys should support flexible interaction (while considering the trade-off against the need for constant internet connection) and provide integrated instructions. Designers of general platforms should reimagine their audience to include children. For policy makers: both parents and children need education about the toys' implications, and understand that children's mental models of how they work may be mistaken. Non-toy connected devices should be studied for regulatory compliance.

See more examples
Our campaign
Related learning resources