Smart Toys - Data protection risk in the children's room

Modern trends and developments do not stop at children's rooms. There are now electronic toys that are directly connected to the Internet. These are known as "Internet of toys" or "smart toys. The inner workings of networked toys resemble a small computer. They can be controlled via an app or voice commands. Conversations" are also possible. In this case, the child's questions or answers are sent to the company's server via the Internet and the toy responds or reacts accordingly.

The networking of children's toys poses new risks to children's privacy and poses new challenges for parents. A key issue is the responsible behavior of adults, who should accompany children as caregivers when dealing with networked toys. klicksafe has therefore compiled some tipsbelowfor parents who want to give their child Internet-enabled toys.

Tips for parents

Users are not always clear about what happens to their online data, even though they have to disclose certain personal information in order to use the toy. In general, the functionality of a gaming device should always be weighed against the associated costs, also in terms of data sharing - regardless of whether the users are children or adults. Parents themselves can help to reduce the risk of a hacker attack or unwanted data access:

  • Internet-enabled toys should not have an unprotected Bluetooth interface (without a password). On the manufacturer's website, you can find out whether the desired toy has an individual Bluetooth password.
  • Under "Data protection conditions", "Data protection", "Privacy statement" or similar terms, you should critically check on the manufacturer's website which data the manufacturer collects about the toy functions and how this data is further processed.
  • If your child already owns a smart toy with an unprotected Bluetooth interface, you shoulddeactivate this function for safety's sake . As a precaution, it is advisable to remove the battery from the toy. 
  • For toys with voice recording function, IT security experts* recommend that the microphone functionshouldonly be activated by a button or switch. Therefore, check whether the smart playmate always records or whether the microphone can also be turned off.
  • Depending on the model, the toy may also have an integrated camera or record the location via GPS data. Here, too, you should take a close look at the data protection conditions and, if possible,only switch on the camera when it is being used.

Try to find out if the toy receives regular (security) updates. Visit the manufacturer's website, there might be a helpdesk you can contact. You can also find more information about common problems and solutions on customer review sites/forums.

Find out in advance about the exact functions of the toy: Is Internet access or an account necessary? What are the possible security risks (e.g., hacking, disclosure of data)? Consumer protection agencies advise against the purchase of some products due to possible security gaps. Therefore, find out whether product tests warn against the toy. As a matter of principle, check whether a networked toy fits in with your parenting style. With interactive toys, it's also important to think about what content and values are being taught. What does the doll actually talk about with your child?

Accompany your child in dealing with networked toys and support them in starting up and using them. Interactive toys require many skills and are no substitute for personal closeness. Explain to your child what he or she is playing with ("It looks like a teddy bear, but it's a computer") and involve him or her in personalizing the toy. This way, a gift becomes an opportunity to acquire your own digital skills. Also, agree on rules for what, when, where and for how long the game may be played.

Observe your child or play along if the toy is new and your child is playing with it for the first time. Also, be aware of influences that the networked toy may have on your child. Do the toys and play behaviors match your own values and beliefs as a parent? For example, does the toy promote certain views about how girls and boys should behave? As a parent, ask yourself if you can accept aspects of the toy that encourage certain behaviors. Find out how much influence the toy has on your child.

Not every networked toy is suitable for all ages. In some cases, they can even be harmful. The specified age group is merely a recommendation by the manufacturer. Whether a toy is appropriate for a certain age group has to do not only with possible dangers, but also with the child's development and interests: Is your child really ready for this toy? 

Just because a toy is marketed as having "educational value" does not mean that it is. Toys are primarily meant to be fun, and the educational value that some toy manufacturers refer to is rarely given. So don't be misled by references like "educational value." Interconnected toys often advertise learning effects, such as promoting language acquisition. However, this does not necessarily require an interactive stuffed animal, but above all other people and the joy of playing. Also question what behavior a toy promotes. A stuffed animal that encourages children to reveal many details about themselves is not recommended.

Some networked toys have recurring additional costs if your child wants to continue playing with them. Pay attention to whether more information about such costs is available on the toy's packaging or the manufacturer's website. Advertising content or information about possible in-app purchases should be understandable to parents and not visible to children. Disable in-app purchases when possible. Also, agree with your child how much money can be spent on paid features.

Letting children play carefree also means leaving them unsupervised from time to time to encourage their creativity. So be aware that when playing with a networked toy, your child may let his or her imagination run wild and use the toy for very different purposes than the manufacturer originally intended. Children should be able to play without manufacturers or parents tracking their every move online.

Networked toys rely on specialized software. If manufacturers stop providing updates and support for the software, continued use of the toy may be difficult or unsafe. Check whether the manufacturer provides information on this and whether this support is also guaranteed in the distant future. Also check if your child will be able to use the user data for future versions of the game or if this data will be deleted.