Smart toys: they’re new, they’re interactive, they’re the latest “must-have” for kids… and yet many parents are reluctant to bring one home. Today, we’re going to delve inside the smart toy world — revealing the truth behind the most common myths surrounding these 21st century playroom gadgets, and helping you decide whether a smart toy might be right for your household.
1) Smart Toys Discourage Parent-Child Interaction
Smart toys are groundbreakingly intuitive. Instead of just repeating catchphrases, they use AI technology to have conversations that mimic real human interaction. Sounds great, right? Well, for a lot of parents, not so much. They worry that these communicative little playmates could discourage kids from talking to the people that matter — like parents, other children, and teachers. Many industry experts disagree, however. Pediatric development expert, David Kuntz explains:
“Smart toys represent a more back-to-basics play experience than you might think. Because they’re screen-free, they don’t keep kids glued to their seats. But more than that — kids crave a level of explanation that no toy, however smart, can equal. A smart toy might be able to say, “the grass is green because of (x),” but the next step is that child turning to their parent or guardian and saying, “hey mom, why does (x) make the grass green. At the end of the day, the toy’s answer is inspiring conversation, not preventing it.”
Parents who have already started using this technology at home confirm Mr. Kuntz’s theory. Vanessa, mother to a nine-year-old boy with autism, elaborates:
“Since Zach got Mr. Dino (his first smart toy), he’s been opening up more — starting conversations while we’re in the car, and asking me questions. Mr. Dino will tell him something, and he’ll come to me like ‘What’s this?’ ‘What does that mean?’ It’s kind of cool.”
Parents can also limit smart toy interactions to during family time. Despite the common perception that smart toys are exclusively a one-on-one gadget, they work just as well in group settings. In fact, having a parent or other trusted adult around can help to improve the play experience, giving kids a better understanding of how their new toy works.
2) Smart Toys Are Always Listening
Perhaps one of the biggest smart toy controversies began with Mattel’s Hello Barbie, which used voice recording technology to store children’s conversations. When turned on, Hello Barbie could hear everything going on around her, and many parents were concerned by the privacy ramifications of this feature. While these concerns were valid, not all smart toys are created equal. The CogniToys Dino, for example, can only listen while the button on its belly is actively held down. When the button is released, the toy is no longer capable of hearing. That means it can never pick up on casual conversation, and can’t unintentionally be left on or activated. The lesson here is that it’s important to research the privacy features of any toy before bringing it home. There are plenty of smart toys on the market that have very strict data usage policies, and are 100% compliant with COPPA regulations.
3) Smart Toys Prevent Active Play
Smart toys are often mistakenly lumped together with devices like cell phones, tablets, and computers. Such devices do indeed generally go hand-in-hand with inactive play, but the same is not true of the smart toy. Because smart toys take traditional toy form, playtime with a smart toy is not limited to the capabilities of the toy, and opens up just as much room for imagination as the action figures and dolls of yesteryear. Kids can dress up smart toys, take them on daring adventures, and name them after superheroes. The only difference? Smart toys can actually remember those names!
4) Kids Can Use Smart Toys to Gain Access to Information That Isn’t Age-Appropriate
Parents who are concerned about keeping their kids safe online may be reluctant to purchase a smart toy because of the common misconception that the Internet connectivity of smart toys can be used similarly to a traditional web browser. In reality, no smart toy currently on the market gives kids unfettered access to the web. Most, like the CogniToys Dino, pull content from a custom created database, enabling only responses that have been carefully screened and are kid friendly. While some do pull answers search-engine style, they have very strict controls in place to prevent the toy from answering inappropriate questions.
Before buying a smart toy, be sure to do your research. Every toy is different, and every maker holds themselves to different privacy standards. That being said, there’s no denying that smart toys offer a solution to many of the problems associated with putting technology in the hands of children. Because they’re designed just for kids, these toys are more apt to prevent young users from accessing inappropriate information, sharing private data, and spending hours and hours online. At the same time, they offer the early introduction to technology that is so essential in a millennial world.