Smart toys are so new to the play landscape that many parents have a lot of questions about what it means to own a smart toy. Are they safe? How are they any different from kid-filtered smartphones and tablets? Can they actually be educational, or are they just another gimmick? Today, we’ll take a look at what smart technology means for early learners, and what you need to know before bringing a smart toy home.
What Exactly are Smart Toys?
You’re probably already familiar with smart home assistants like Amazon’s Alexa. And if you’re an Apple junkie, you’ve likely had a few conversations with Siri. Smart toys harness similar technology—with a kid-friendly twist. For example, kids can ask the CogniToys Dino the same kind of questions they might ask Alexa or Siri, but they can’t ask it to order them a new dollhouse. More importantly (outside the context of your wallet), the Dino will answer in a way that’s age-appropriate and easy for early learners to understand. Most smart toys also expand on these core abilities in a way that’s fun and educational. In the case of the Dino, this involves activities like trivia, Historical Oracle, fill-in-the-blank books, and even meditation.
Are Smart Toys Safe?
Sadly, this question isn’t as easily answered. Any device that connects to the Internet and is being marketed to kids deserves a certain amount of scrutiny, and smart toys are no exception. Elemental Path is proud to have been recognized for upholding exceptional safety and security standards in its CogniToys products. However, not all smart toys are created equal. On the plus side, there are regulations in place through The Children’s Online Privacy Protection Rule (COPPA) that hold developers to a set of safety standards when marketing to children under the age of 13—primarily surrounding the kind of data that can be collected through Internet-connected devices. While we recommend familiarizing yourself with COPPA , watch out for the following commonly found red flags:
- Are they asking for a last name?
- Are they asking for an address?
- Are they asking for your child's email or commonly used logins?
Tip: Before purchasing a toy, download its companion app to see what kind information the company expects you to provide.
Is the Toy Always Listening?
Many parents worry, with good reason, that smart devices hear too much. For example, Amazon’s Alexa—a device designed for adults, but commonly used by kids—has been criticized for having a microphone that is always on. So, if you say something that sounds like “Alexa,” she springs to life. Smart toys designed for kids, on the other hand, should have a microphone that can only listen when a child actively engages with it. If you’re a CogniToys Dino owner and have ever wondered why you have to hold down the button on its belly the entire time you’re talking to it — now you know! It makes accidental “listening” close to impossible.
How Is My Child’s Data Being Collected?
Most smart devices need to collect data in order to provide more personalized experiences. That said, how that data is collected makes a world of difference when it comes to your child’s safety. Some companies choose to store identifiable interactions on the internet, even giving users access to those files, while others take extra measures to anonymize and protect all data received.
Is My Child’s Data Being Sold?
In addition to how the company handles your child’s information, know the difference between companies who sell information and those who use third parties to improve the play experience. Elemental Path, for example, makes a commitment to not share any data the CogniToys Dino generates with outside marketing entities. Anything created by the platform stays within it and is only used to improve interactions with the Dino.
Can Smart Toys Really be Educational?
It sounds like a gimmick, right? Smart toys are fun and cutting-edge, but can they really be educational? The bottom line here is a big, resounding “yes.” Of course, exactly how educational depends on the toy. The “why” of it surrounds how kids learn: by asking questions. In fact, kids ask an average of 300 questions a day. Parents can answer a lot of these, but they can’t answer all of them, and having a kid-friendly smart buddy around can be a real help in those “uhhh” moments. Smart toys are also a great way to introduce kids to technology and prepare them for success in the digital age without sitting them down in front of a screen. Screen-based learning is unhealthy for a myriad of reasons, and smart toys give kids a chance to learn and play with tech, while still getting some of the traditional toy experience.
We get it—the whole “smart toy” thing can sound a bit scary at first. But remember, interactive, data-driven devices aren't new. Most kids have played a game on Facebook, asked Siri a question, or Googled an answer. Buying technology made exclusively for kids instead ensures that parents have more control, not only over the type of information collected, but also over the type of information kids receive. Plus, Wi-Fi enabled toys are challenging kids for the better by putting technology in an age-appropriate context. Just be sure to consider your purchase from every angle before deciding which smart toy you should bring home.