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Parent and consumer groups warn against 'naughty tech toys'

An attendee tries the Meta Quest 3 in a demonstration room at a tech conference in September 2023. The headset is among the products listed on ParentsTogether's 2023 tech toys "Naughty List."
Godofredo A. Vásquez
An attendee tries the Meta Quest 3 in a demonstration room at a tech conference in September 2023. The headset is among the products listed on ParentsTogether's 2023 tech toys "Naughty List."

Virtual reality headsets, online gaming platform memberships and mini robots are cropping up on many must-have gift lists for kids this holiday season.

But some parent and consumer support groups say these tech-driven toys are not safe for play.

"We don't think that kids should be raised without access to tech," said Shelby Knox, the online safety campaign director for ParentsTogether, the non-profit behind the 2023 Naughty List of Tech Toys that Spy, Steal and Shock, an annual roundup of potentially harmful playthings. "But there is a long track record of seeing kids really hurt by tech products."

The 2023 edition of the Naughty List includes both physical products, like the Amazon Echo Dot Kids and VTech's Kidibuzz, as well as virtual ones, such as subscriptions to Amazon's Twitch online gaming platform and gift cards to pay for Roblox's in-game currency.

The smart toy sector is worth close to $17 billion and is estimated to grow by 20% in the next four years, according to a a recent Business Research Company report. But the list claims that many of these products can leave children vulnerable to bullying, scammers or sexual predators.

Selling information on kids

The majority of the offerings made the list, however, because of data security and privacy concerns.

"Kids' private information is a literal goldmine to these companies," Knox said. "They make money selling data about kids to online advertising firms."

In 2018, for example, the Federal Trade Commission fined VTech, the maker of the smartphone-like Kidibuzz, because the company allegedly collected the personal information of hundreds of thousands of children without their parents' consent. VTech paid the $650,000 fine, but issued a statement at the time saying it did not admit any violations of law or liability.

Intense content that kids might not be ready for

ParentsTogether isn't the only group pushing back against the smart toy industry.

Meta's popular Quest virtual reality headsets have come under fire both from ParentsTogether and the consumer protection non-profit US PIRG Education Fund. US PIRG published a report warning consumers specifically about the technology's potential for exposing children to harmful content. (US PIRG is also the publisher of the annual Trouble in Toyland report highlighting the dangers inherent in some toys.)

"This is really immersive technology that feels so, so real when you're inside of it," said US PIRG policy analyst R.J. Cross.

Meta lowered the recommended minimum age for the use of their headsets from 13 to 10 earlier this year. These younger children have "junior accounts" which, Meta says, disable voice and text chat. But Cross said children can still use the headsets to play the edgy multiplayer games available through Meta's Rec Room app.

"This is one of the most popular apps Meta has on its app store," said Cross about Rec Room, noting that it's free — a further enticement.

Rec Room is full of user-created games, some of them very disturbing. But for Meta, it's like whack-a-mole: Once the company takes down one version of a troubling game, another user puts up a different version.

Meta's website does have a guide for parents and pre-teens concerning the safety of its virtual reality offerings. It includes written content warnings and videos.

In a statement to NPR, Meta said parents can control whether their pre-teen can download or use an app, and block access to apps at any time. "The technology is still in its early days, so the industry is still learning and evolving, identifying best practices and establishing standards for how we address topics like privacy, safety and integrity," the statement said.

Meanwhile, the Toy Association, a trade association for the U.S. toy industry, said in a statement that it's committed to educating its members about the effects of smart technology on families. "Toy safety is the top priority of the toy industry and protecting children and maintaining the trust of parents are part of that mission," the statement said in part.

Story for air and digital edited by Jennifer Vanasco; audio mixed by Isabella Gomez Sarmiento.

Copyright 2024 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Chloe Veltman
Chloe Veltman is a correspondent on NPR's Culture Desk.
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