Are Smart Toys A Smart Choice?

Today, children would rather spend time hunched over an iPad than sandcastles. Long gone is hide-and-seek with neighbourhood mates or spontaneous bike rides to the playground. This is the age of digital kids, which means that like cars, computers and phones – toys must also compete with the ever-changing landscape of technology.
Enter smart toys: those with electronic features controlled by software made to enhance playtime for children. Although it’s easy to dismiss smart toys as harmful for our kids, there are positives that we should to take into consideration.
A force for good
There are hundreds of new jobs that didn’t exist 30 years ago. From SEO specialists to app designers, the tech industry is drastically innovating the workforce. So it’s no wonder that primary schools have begun to teach students how to code. Smart toys can introduce the love for technology at a young age and incite interest in this growing field.
They can also take problem solving to a whole other level and allow children to approach obstacles with unique, unorthodox methods. For instance, a standard puzzle is algorithmic, but Osmo, a series of games that integrate real-world shapes and writing with screen-based challenges, lets the user think outside the box. Toys like Lego Dimensions allow users to interact with the digital storyline by controlling the physical Lego toys in front of them. This means that children can still participate in authentic play, which is what children need in their early development, while still keeping them entertained with the digital element of the game.
Smart toys can also potentially help identify development disorders that may otherwise go unnoticed. A team at the University of Madrid created Smart Cubes, which is able to detect delays in the user’s psychomotor development. The smart toy is packed with sensors that perceives problems with the child’s motor skills, balance, timing or spatial awareness.
The possible risks
Like most devices, smart toys are susceptible to being hacked. Many can record voices and ‘speak’, creating a faux conversation between the child and toy. However, a toy with speech recognition that is connected to the Internet is susceptible to hackers who can download these audio files and even send messages back to the toy, which is then recited, to the child. This was the case with CloudPets, when someone leaked numerous audio recordings of children as well as their private security details. And with the inclusion of sensors and cameras, even more information can be collected.
A more obvious reason for concern is that like computer games, smart toys can impact a child’s perception of stimulation. Parents often rely on high-tech toys and gadgets to keep their children busy, but in some ways they can limit a child’s imagination. Children use their imagination to bring their stuffed toys and dolls to life, but if you give them a toy that comes with a name, voice and personality, it leaves no room for creativity – which is very important during early childhood development. ‘It takes away the child’s contribution,’ says Dorothy Singer, a Yale University psychologist.
Smart toys might also impact concentration levels. When German researchers convinced a nursery school to remove all toys from the classroom, the teachers reported that by the third month, the students were engaged in more imaginative play, were able to concentrate better, and communicate more effectively. This is because when children under five years old have too many toys, it hinders their ability to concentrate and learn from one particular toy. This can give rise to short attention spans and the need for constant external stimulation.
Smart toy technology is still in its infancy. But like laptop and smartphone penetration, it’s likely they will eventually infiltrate every household. Children are living in a different time which we need to adapt to, even if it does seem alien or scary. New parents need to take part in educating kids about what is good for them and what they should be wary of. The risks of the technology itself are outweighed by ignorant parenting: where we aren’t prepared for those risks, which could have far greater consequence on our children.

What do you think of smart toys – terrific or terrible?

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