Imagine a doll that can have a real conversation with your daughter by understanding her words and responding intelligently. Imagine also that the doll’s manufacturer can capture, store and use information it gathers from these interactive doll conversations – who she is, what she likes and who her family members are – to target messages back to her.
No need to imagine; here’s the real-world prototype: Mattel’s “Hello Barbie,” whose upcoming launch is igniting child advocates to mobilize against its release. Beyond privacy concerns are larger brain and social development concerns, experts say.
“Hello Barbie records the innocent, playful and trusted encounters between the child and doll, and relays the recordings via Wi-Fi to the Cloud for the corporate giant to apply algorithms that turn Barbie into an Internet-enabled digital device,” cautioned Donna Rice Hughes, CEO and President of Enough Is Enough, a nonprofit striving to make the Internet safer for children and families. “Barbie comes to life with child-specific and micro-tailored conversation and questions that can manipulate a child’s innocent and intimate communications with Barbie. A girl’s relationship and friendship with her Barbie dolls should be treated with the utmost privacy and care.”
“Computer algorithms can’t replace—and should not displace—the nuanced responsiveness of caring people interacting with one another.” - Dipesh Navsaria
Digitally-aware parents are also troubled by the privacy implications of this new Barbie.
“Who would have thought Big Brother hides inside Barbie?” said parent Jill Peebles of Pasadena, California. “Interactive dolls creep me out. I would not want anyone to have that much personal information about my child.”
Dr. Susan Linn of Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood (CFCC) expressed similar concerns: “Kids using Hello Barbie aren’t only talking to a doll; they are talking directly to a toy conglomerate whose only interest in them is financial.”
According to this article by Evie Nagy in Fast Company, “all Internet-connected toys and services . . . are governed by the Children's Online Privacy Protection Act, which requires parental consent before any kind of data—including voice data—is collected from products created for or used regularly by children under 13. To function fully, Hello Barbie must be synced with an iOS or Android app, at which point parents are required to read and e-sign a three-paragraph consent form detailing what data will be collected and how it will be used.”
Mattel did not respond to numerous requests to comment on this article. But Bradley Justice of North Carolina, a doll collector for decades and a contributing editor to Doll News journal, does not share the concern about privacy.
“Based on what I’ve seen, the information they are gathering is sort of benign,” Justice said. “I don’t think its Big Brother spying on you. Based on the age group it’s targeting, it’s for a slightly more mature child. As a collector, I see it as something more gimmick driven. Something more of a reaction to the technology we have in the world. To me its sounds like a fun toy to play with. I can see my nieces playing with it. I personally don’t see the problem. It’s kind of like Facebook seeing what you’re doing and feeding algorithms back to you.”
Beyond the privacy issue, such interactive toys are spawning brain and social development concerns. The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends not exposing children age 0–2 to any electronic media because “a child’s brain develops rapidly during these first years, and young children learn best by interacting with people, not screens.”
Parents also question the wisdom of a toy that, as a Mattel spokeswoman states, will “deepen that relationship girls have with [Barbie].”
“It deprives imagination,” said Peebles. “Part of the fun as a kid is making the dolls talk, with the child creating both sides of a conversation.”
Child advocates share this concern about the social implications of such a doll.
“Computer algorithms can’t replace—and should not displace—the nuanced responsiveness of caring people interacting with one another,” said CFCC board member and pediatrician Dipesh Navsaria, MPH, MD, assistant professor at the University of Wisconsin School of Medicine and Public Health.
Hughes agrees: “For generations, girls have not needed any help at imaginative and creative play with their Barbie dolls. Mattel needs to focus on remaining a trusted toy manufacturer and let Barbie be Barbie, a girl’s most trusted confidant and BFF.”Where do YOU stand on this example of artificial intelligence in interactive toys and the potential brain, social development and privacy concerns? Share your thoughts using the Comments field below.