Advocates Alarmed That Toys and Tablets Are Watching Kids

With more children connecting to the Internet at a young age, parents should know what’s at stake.
(Photo: Nick David/Getty Images)
Dec 21, 2015· 3 MIN READ
Yolanda Martinez is a TakePart contributor. She has been published in the Los Angeles Times and The Washington Post.

As the holiday season rolls around, parents may be alarmed to learn that Santa isn’t the only one with an eye on their kids. Revelations about hacked toys and complaints about marketing overreach demonstrate how vulnerable families can be to unauthorized data collection, security breaches, and online manipulation.

Advocates warn there’s a surprising number of toys that connect to a cloud service and expose kids to spying hackers. U.K. officials recently arrested a man on suspicion of hacking toy company VTech, the makers of child-oriented tablet toys. Photos, chat logs, and other information shared by more than 6 million children and 5 million parents were leaked. Another toy that’s sounding alarms is Hello Barbie, a chatty version of the popular doll that records a child’s question and sends it to a third party for a response. It was named the worst toy of the year by the Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood, an advocacy group for parents trying to limit commercial access to children. The group alleges vulnerabilities with its Wi-Fi connection—the toy makers say they’ve fixed any issues.

Then there are the marketing and tracking vulnerabilities of the screens that Mom and Dad use too. Of children eight and younger, 75 percent had access to smartphones or tablets in 2013, a sharp increase from 52 percent in 2011, according to a survey by Common Sense Media, a nonprofit advocacy group that provides reviews and media information to parents. With increased exposure to advertisers, several groups have taken notice.

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There’s a loophole in the now-dated Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act, passed in 1998, which protects children 13 and younger from having their data collected from websites without parental consent, but does not prevent companies from creating ads that target kids online.

While there are regulations surrounding the advertising to kids on television, online advertisers have more leeway. Children’s cartoons can’t feature product placements or what’s called host selling, which means you’ll never see Saturday morning cartoon characters eating or talking about a cereal sold in your grocery store. But when kids visit brand websites, they can find games, online videos, and branded item downloads.

Up to 85 percent of food companies that market to kids have websites that target them with online TV ads, downloadable branding items, and viral marketing, according to Common Sense Media.

“It’s important to understand that children are developmentally vulnerable to advertising,” says Josh Golin, executive director of the Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood.

Developmental research by the American Psychological Association has shown that children younger than seven or eight do not comprehend the persuasive intent of advertising. It is not understood when children make the jump to realizing how advertising works.

“When advertising is based on data collected from them, it’s powerful,” Golin says. “They do not realize how it’s happening.”

But the influence of online advertisers on young children is not the only issue parents have to worry about when it comes to online safety. With the increase of school-issued devices, student privacy is also at risk.

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The Electronic Frontier Foundation recently filed a complaint against Google with the Federal Trade Commission, accusing the tech giant of collecting student data through its Google Apps for Education program.

In its complaint, the EFF claims that because the Chrome Sync feature was enabled by default in the school-issued Chromebooks, Google was able to track student information. This means it could collect data for nonadvertising purposes by data-mining student search terms, results clicked on, YouTube videos watched, and saved passwords.

In a response to the complaint, Google said the data collected is only used so students “can do things like communicate using email and collaborate on assignments using Google Docs.” In the statement, Jonathan Rochelle, director of Google Apps for Education, says the company is firmly committed to keeping student information private and secure. He also says Google Apps for Education Core Services do not have ads and that data is not collected for advertising purposes.

Google says it has disabled a Chome Sync setting that shared browsing history with other Google services.

The use of school-issued devices is growing, with a third of U.S. students having Chromebooks, iPads, and other devices assigned to them, according to a report from Project Tomorrow, an educational nonprofit focused on innovations in teaching.

When it comes to student privacy, not many school districts are making it a policy to protect student data. According to a Fordham Law study, only 7 percent of school districts have agreements with providers that restrict the sale or marketing of student data to advertisers.

But that doesn’t mean parents are not concerned. A Pew Research survey in 2013 found that as many as 81 percent of parents are very to somewhat concerned about data collected from their children for advertising purposes.