Is Hello Barbie eavesdropping on your kids?

Editor’s Note: Susan Linn is author of “The Case for Make Believe: Saving Play in a Commercialized World” and a psychologist at Harvard Medical School. The opinions expressed in this commentary are hers.

Story highlights

Susan Linn: Children find intimacy in the inanimate, using make-believe to express and understand life experiences

Linn: Hello Barbie allows corporations to record, analyze kids' conversations with the toy, raising a host of ethical and moral issues

CNN  — 

Imaginary play is one of childhood’s most deeply personal and important activities. Talking to and through their toys allows children the freedom to explore life, try on new roles and express their deepest hopes, fears and dreams. The precious, private space that children inhabit when they play is no place for corporate marketers and eavesdroppers.

That’s why Mattel’s Wi-Fi connected Hello Barbie is so troubling. The doll will capture what children say in play, beam it to the cloud, and give personalized responses – something like talking to Siri, the “intelligent assistant” on Apple phones. Mattel representatives say that by recording and analyzing children’s play, Hello Barbie will help them learn what children like and dislike, and then push data back at kids.

Susan Linn
Creepy talking Barbie

I’m a psychologist and a longtime advocate for limiting commercializing of children’s play. The true value of playing with dolls, stuffed animals or and any inanimate or imaginary creatures is that it is children who bring them to life, who imbue them with distinct personalities, and transform them as needed into friends, adversaries, champions and more. The silence of make-believe playthings is their most important attribute.

No two children play exactly the same way. One child I played with after his dental appointment transformed a dog puppet into a dentist. Another, facing open heart surgery, transformed the same puppet into a surgeon. Another pretended it was a mother picking her daughter up at day care, a stark contrast to the child who created another “mother” who passively watched as her daughter drowned. Then there was the little girl who used the puppet to express her take on a family dilemma. “My heart is Jewish,” she said, “but the rest of my body is Christmas.”

Hello Barbie is likely only the first wave in a flood of smart toys that will carry on real-time conversations with children. That corporations can now record and analyze these conversations raises serious moral, ethical and potentially legal issues. Advocates like myself have already voiced concerns that these toys will not only stifle creativity, but also be vehicles for sneaky advertising and be vulnerable to hacking. And the multilayered nature of children’s play raises even more complex worries.

Consider this: What if a child tells Hello Barbie that someone is abusing her? The scenario is not farfetched: 3 million children were involved with child protective services in 2013. Besides parents, usually the only adults who might witness children’s private play are teachers, caregivers and health professionals who have relationships with both the children and their families. They are mandated to report suspected abuse to the authorities. What will Mattel do?

As Hello Barbie was in development, a Mattel spokesperson described the company’s efforts to find the “right” answers to troubling comments or questions. Of the more than 8,000 lines in Hello Barbie’s verbal repertoire – mainly inconsequential chit chat, on topics such as fashion and dating – are phrases that appear to encourage children to refer difficult issues and questions to adults. Lines like “Ooh, I’m not really the right person to ask about that. You should ask a grownup those kinds of questions,” and “Oh, I’m sorry to hear that. But sometimes talking to a grownup about it can help.”

These phrases sound benign, but they are not. What if a child is being hurt by a caretaking adult? What if a child follows Barbie’s advice, tells a grownup and is punished for it? It’s sad to think of a child, unheard by anyone, confiding abuse to an inanimate object. But it’s unconscionable for a toy company to have that information and do nothing about it.

But to make things more complicated, children’s play is often metaphorical, not to be taken literally. It’s equally unconscionable for someone at any corporation to wreak havoc in a family’s life by reporting them to a social service agency based solely on what an unknown child says to a toy. And if that isn’t a quandary enough, there are legal ramifications to consider. Several states require that absolutely anyone having information that a child may be abused must report it.

According to an FAQ released by Mattel, if employees “come across a conversation that raises concern about the safety of a child or others, we will cooperate with law enforcement agencies and legal process as required to do so or as we deem appropriate on a case-by-case basis.”

I shared this statement with David Monahan, a consumer protection lawyer with Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood. He said: “Mattel’s policy of cooperating regarding conversations of concern as they ‘deem appropriate’ makes no sense. In states where there is a duty to report suspected child abuse or neglect, the law would govern the appropriate course of conduct.”

Mattel and its technology partner ToyTalk are trying to answer critics’ concerns about children revealing potentially dangerous situations by allowing parents access to their children’s conversations, but that’s another a potentially harmful privacy violation. There’s no way to know how every parent of every child playing with Hello Barbie will react to what their kids say to the doll.

Suppose children say or do things that parents find objectionable? What if they use Hello Barbie to experiment with being mean, or to express sexual curiosity? Most adults I know are thankful our parents knew nothing about some of our vividly remembered, private, imaginary and definitely experimental play.

Hello Barbie’s privacy policy doesn’t come close to adequately addressing any of these concerns. In fact, it’s hard to imagine one that does. Kids are entitled to private thoughts and feelings. They have a right to imaginary play that belongs solely to them, and to an inner life free from corporate manipulation. Interactive toys will become increasingly sophisticated and alluring.

What they will never do is provide what kids really need: the privacy, time, space and safety to create and populate their own worlds.

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