How to set up your child’s “smart” toy
Watch out for these words in the fine print
If you are able to take the time to read the fine print, keep these questions in mind:
- What data is collected about users?
- What is it used for?
- Where will it end?
There are keywords to look for: “Data” is the biggest – Cross recommends doing a Ctrl-F search to read every occurrence of “data”. You can also search for the words “microphone”, “camera” and “location”. To find out how data is shared, search for the words “providers”, “third party”, “marketing” or “advertiser”.
It is important to recognize that reading the fine print is only available to parents who have the luxury of time to wade through dense legal language, which is not always offered in languages other than English.
A good sign of a well-designed and privacy-protecting toy is if the fine print is easy to find and easy to read. “If it’s not dressed up in legalese, and you can understand what’s going on, that’s usually a pretty good sign that they’re trying to be transparent,” says Cross.
Do an extended reality check
You’ve probably already heard of augmented and mixed reality games Pokémon Go, Mario Kart Live: Home Circuit, or Lego’s AR app. Your family may already own a VR headset. As sophisticated augmented reality toys become more mainstream, it’s more important to be aware of the data they collect.
Extended reality, or XR, relies heavily on sensor data. “XR uses this data to accurately place a user in a virtual space and enable more realistic sound effects and support interactions,” said Daniel Berrick, policy advisor at the Future of Privacy Forum, whose work focuses on technology and privacy law issues. This means the device tracks body and eye movements, as well as the surrounding environment, to make gameplay more immersive – after all, a VR headset needs to track how your child’s body moves in order to cut through a game of Fruit Ninja or Beat Saber. Devices also collect usage and cross-app data, such as how much time a user spends on an activity and what kind of content they engage with. It will also use location data.
If you’re considering XR devices or games for your kids, be extra vigilant about switching data permissions. (More on this in the next section.) Because XR games tend to be more immersive and potentially more intense, Berrick recommends checking for a maturity rating to make sure the experience is right for your child.
Lock your privacy settings
If a toy includes privacy settings, make sure you’ve set them to collect as little data as possible, says Cross. Some toys may have parental controls that help you keep track of your children’s activity or limit the time they spend on the toy. Consider turning these on as well. Take every opportunity to set strong passwords and multi-factor authentication.
“Don’t be afraid to make up information” if a site or app asks you for personal information about your child, says Cross. A website or app may ask for a child’s birthday to ensure they are old enough to use it. You are under no obligation to provide an accurate or precise date of birth.
Games sometimes collect data to make the game experience more engaging or immersive. For example, eye-tracking in VR games makes players’ avatars more realistic. Berrick recommends weighing what is appropriate for your child given their age and the nature of the game. Does the game allow players to interact with others over the internet? If so, you may want to set more restrictive limits. Do your children play alone or only with trusted friends? You might consider loosening the digital reins.
Keep an eye on playtime
Have you made it this far and decided to keep the smart toy in your home? Just make sure playtime happens in a supervised setting. If you wouldn’t leave a young child home alone with a baseball bat within reach, don’t leave them alone with a toy that could potentially be hacked.
It’s entirely possible for kid-friendly technology to inspire all the joy and imagination you want in a toy, just with a little more fumbling with fine print and the ever-present shadow of privacy risk. Or you can simply get them the good old analogue skateboard already.