Is that teddy or tablet collecting your child's data?

The Internet of toys: The digital lives of young children

Play and the problem of privacy

Communication technology is a daily reality for many young children in the form of internet-connected toys and devices. Although these offer real benefits for children, they also present hidden risks, notably relating to privacy. To better understand the challenges presented by toys and devices for children aged 0–8 years, the European Cooperation in Science & Technology (COST) programme initiated an Action to develop an interdisciplinary network for researchers to share information and knowledge: The Digital Literacy and Multimodal Practices of Young Children (DigiLitEY). Outcomes of this COST ACTION are presented at the 4th European Conference for Science Journalists (ECSJ).

Connected toys include robots, teddy bears and dolls, while connected devices include tablets, watches and mobile phones. Connected toys record and share children’s data while they play; connected devices may use apps for gaming and learning, or have access to online TV or social media.

Jackie Marsh, chair of DigiLitEY and professor of education at the University of Sheffield, UK, confirms that these toys and devices have some considerable benefits for young children. “Some of the positive impacts include: enjoyment and satisfaction, enhanced learning, increased sociability, access to knowledge and information when required,” she says.

Unfortunately, some of their connected features also present challenges to parents, teachers and caregivers, in regard to children’s security and data privacy. According to Marsh, many parents believe that safety strategies are unnecessary until children get older, yet some children are able to bypass safety settings. In the case of connected devices, parental security concerns focus more on protecting their children from violent content or inappropriate language.

Stephane Chaudron from DigiLitEy suggests that “Parents aim to provide children with safe and secure toys. In this sense, a first question could be raised: ‘What data relating to my child are recorded, and for what purposes are they stored, analysed and shared?’” These questions and concerns are justified. In a 2016 report, the US Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation states that “there have been a number of instances in which companies offering connected toys and devices have failed to adequately secure the information they collect from or about children.”

Chaudron points out that all details are in the privacy statement or privacy policy, but that not many parents take the time to read those documents. Moreover, sometimes these documents are difficult to read, or run to several pages of text. For the US Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation, there is a straightforward solution: “If the toymaker has a long and confusing privacy policy, or if parents determine that the toy collects too much personal information, parents may want to reconsider giving that product to their child.”

Erling Normann, producer and journalist for Newton, a children’s science programme at NRK (Norsk rikskringkasting AS) says that it is difficult to answer briefly whether digital communication could impact children negatively. NRK itself states it “will protect children from harmful forms of content.” The NRK privacy statements are available to parents.

Despite these kinds of assurances and suggestions, governments are recognising the privacy problem associated with toys and devices and are tightening up data protection laws. By May 2018, the toy industry will need to comply with new European-level legislation, the General Data Protection Regulation, which outlines new rights for data subjects. These require the individual’s clear consent to others processing their personal data, the right to object to profiling based on personal data, and the right to restrict data portability from one service provider to another.

Clearly, it is important that parents, teachers and caregivers learn more about how connected toys and devices affect children, and that they familiarise themselves with privacy policies, but it is not clear how this should be encouraged and done. Toy companies must begin by providing clear and user-friendly privacy statements, explaining what kind of children’s data they are collecting and how they will use it. Better legislation will provide incentives to implement this.

Karla Paz

Reprinted with the kind permission from the European Conference for Science Journalists 2017 (ECSJ2017) held in Copenhagen between 26 and 30 June 2017.

Image credit: Annie Spratt on unsplash

Go back to the Special Issue on ECSJ2017

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