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High-tech toys can be fun, but those with built-in artificial intelligence, cameras or microphones can pose some real security risks. Keep your kids' new (or old) electronics safer with these simple security safeguards.
Why Tech Toys Pose a Risk
Tech toys may be surveillance devices, and the maker may be retaining information about your child (and anyone else who visits and plays with that toy). Manufacturers are supposed to keep that information safe. The Children's Online Privacy Protection Act requires that websites and services protect the privacy of consumers under 13.
But software bugs and the potential for data exposure aren't unheard of, even with major, reputable brands. It's easy to overlook or minimize the risks because kids have often been under surveillance since birth—with baby monitors. But once the internet is involved, it's a riskier proposition.
Still, kids' toys have traditionally allowed them a way to pretend to do the things adults do, from driving cars to preparing meals in a connected kitchen. Some kids' electronics listen in on daily activities, and toys with a chat function can get information you might not want shared with strangers.
Developers of kids' toys may be more focused on making the toys work as intended than on trying to look for ways to hack into them, accidentally leaving some data unprotected or not protected well. And younger kids may not understand that a toy seems like a friend because of artificial intelligence, leading to them divulge information they shouldn't.
What to Look for When Choosing Tech Toys
Not every tech toy needs to be connected to the internet. But if your child has connected devices, look for ones that:
- Are "touch to talk," meaning they are not constantly on and listening
- Have parental controls
- Can be turned on and off
- Can also be used when they are offline
- Have been reviewed by an FTC-approved industry group or another source you trust
- Don't have monthly charges, in-app purchases or ads, if you are uncomfortable with those
The Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood suggests that parents view play with connected toys the same as they would screen time. And the American Academy of Pediatrics recommends limiting non-educational time with digital entertainment to an hour a day weekdays for children ages 2 through 5.
How to Minimize Risk With Children's Electronics
Talk to children about keeping information private. But know that many are not going to understand, so they rely on adults to keep them safe.
Digital platforms designed for kids (Roblox is an example) can offer learning opportunities—think managing money—but user-generated content is not always safe for kids. Plus, many parents occasionally hand a smartphone to children to temporarily placate them, so putting as many safeguards on your devices as you can is wise.
Here's what you can do to keep your kids' internet-connected devices safe:
- Talk to your child about risks of the internet and about the importance of not giving out personal information. The conversation can change as they grow, and eventually include topics like cyberbullying and other forms of digital harassment.
- Opt in to all privacy safeguards.
- Block access to chat rooms.
- Keep your Wi-Fi connection password-protected, and keep your firmware up to date.
- Do not allow your child to access the web from an unsecure Bluetooth or Wi-Fi connection.
- Keep web-connected devices out of children's rooms—charge them in a central location kids can't easily access (you may also be able to disable them for hours children should not be using them).
- Ask children to tell you who "Siri" or "Alexa" is to check their understanding. In the case of Alexa, some child-development experts suggest changing the name to something like, "Computer" to make the artificial intelligence aspect clearer.
- Choose passwords for every device and connected toy that are complex and tough to crack―and don't repeat them.
- Know your child's email addresses and passwords. Let them know you can access social networking sites, emails and browser histories.
Finally, check your own privacy settings and family settings on the devices you own. And remember that your child is watching what you do: If you're careful about where you connect and show them what you do to be safe, chances are they will too. It's probably never too soon to start talking to children about safety; showing them how you keep your identity and private information safe is part of that.
The devices don't replace human interaction, though, and kids need guidance about how much is too much and built-in protections against intrusion from inappropriate people or access to materials that are not age-appropriate.
The Bottom Line
Connected devices can be fun and educational for kids, but they also come with risks. It's wise to limit their use of such devices and to monitor playtime carefully. Showing kids how they can enjoy and learn from connected devices can help them use the devices safely.
It's also smart to do occasional checks to see if your private information is in places you might not expect. Experian's personal privacy scan is a one-time free scan that lets you know which data broker and people finder sites may have your personal information. You can ask sites to remove the information if you wish. Or you can upgrade your account with Experian to purchase a plan that automatically removes the information and gives you reports when other sites post your information.