A critical part of your research is reading a toy’s privacy policies before you turn it on or set it up. (More on this in the next section.)
Look Out for These Words in the Fine Print
Current children’s privacy laws in the US don’t do much to protect kids in the 21st century, says Cross. So it’s often parents’ responsibility to decide what kinds of data privacy they will and won’t consent to—and that often means reading the toy’s privacy policies. “I hate having to give that advice, but the fine print is the place where you’re most likely to find the information to key questions,” she says.
If you are able to set aside the time to read the fine print, keep these questions in mind:
- What data is being gathered on users?
- What is it being used for?
- Where is it going to end up?
There are key words that you should comb for: “Data” is the biggest one—Cross recommends doing a Ctrl-F search to read every instance of “data.” You can also look for the words “microphone,” “camera,” and “location.” To figure out how data is shared, search for the words “providers,” “third party,” “marketing,” or “advertiser.”
It’s important to acknowledge that reading the fine print is only accessible to parents who have the luxury of time to weed through dense legal language, which is not always offered in languages other than English.
A good sign of a thoughtfully designed and privacy-protective toy is if the fine print is easy to find and easy to read. “If it’s not decked out in legalese, and you can understand what’s happening, 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 like Pokémon Go, Mario Kart Live: Home Circuit, or Lego’s AR app. Your family might already own a VR headset. As sophisticated extended 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,” says Daniel Berrick, policy counsel at the Future of Privacy Forum, whose work focuses on technology and consumer privacy law issues. This means that the device is tracking body and eye movements, as well as the surrounding environment, in order to make gameplay more immersive—after all, a VR headset needs to track how your kid’s body is moving in order to slash through a game of Fruit Ninja or Beat Saber. Devices also gather usage data and data across applications, like how much time a user is spending on an activity and what kind of content they engage with. It would also use location data.
If you’re evaluating XR devices or games for your kids, be extra vigilant about toggling 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 that that experience is appropriate for your child.
Lock Down the 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 might have parental controls that help you keep tabs on your children’s activity or limit the time they spend on the toy. Consider turning these on, too. Take every opportunity to set secure passwords and multi-factor authentication.
“Don’t be afraid of making up information” if a companion site or app asks you for personal details about your child, says Cross. A site or app might ask for a child’s birthday to make sure that they’re old enough to use it. You’re not obliged to give an exact or even accurate birth date.
Sometimes, toys 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’s 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 might want to set more restrictive limits. Are your children playing solo or only with trusted friends? You could 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 that playtime happens in a supervised setting. If you wouldn’t leave a small kid 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-appropriate tech to inspire all the joy and imagination that you’d want in a toy, just with a little more fumbling with fine print and the ever-present shadow of privacy risks. Or you can simply get them that good ol’ analog skateboard already.