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Parents were asked how they felt about smart toys. Here’s what they said.


It’s common for tech companies to say that people who are worried about their products don’t understand them. “Get to know the product,” comes the message. “Read up, and you’ll come around.” But does that work?

If you look at one recent study, the answer is: not really.

Researchers at the Washington nonprofit Family Online Safety Institute asked parents how they would weigh the benefits and harms of a wide range of technologies. They also found that learning more about products alone didn’t help put parents’ minds at ease.

Take smart toys, for example. Before reading more about what smart toys do, 45 percent of parents said they though the benefits outweighed the harm while 19 percent said the opposite. (The remainder said it was a wash.) After reading, the breakdown was 36 percent with a more favorable view vs. 34 percent with a more negative view.

Two focus groups and a survey of 601 parents with children between ages 2 and 12 participated in the study. The results illustrated how confusing and difficult it can be to make a decision about how children should interact with tech.

Overall, more parents still thought smart technology, in general, and many of the individual technologies — smart toys, smart speakers and wearables — offered more benefit than not. Parents who already own these items were also more likely to say they saw a benefit than those who did not.

Some parents worried about social or behavioral implications of using smart toys.

“I don’t want to see this — for my son at least — take the place of his interaction with his friends and the children in the neighborhood and at school, where they’re playing and together and they’re talking and thinking and conversing versus always doing it with a robotic toy,” one parent told FOSI in a focus group.

Parents also said they’re concerned about hacking, given that toys can collect so much information about their children.

One thing that could help them feel more at ease? Better promises from device makers. Those include standard, sensible guidelines around data collection, the ability to choose what data to share with companies and a clear sense of how companies will secure that data, FOSI said. With those types of standards in place, 80 percent of parents said that they would be “comfortable” with giving their child a connected toy.

That should be a message to companies making this kind of technology — who are notoriously bad about explaining their technology in clear language — about how to reach parents and turn skeptics. “If they know what steps the companies are taking to protect them, they feel better,” said Jennifer Hanley, FOSI’s vice president of legal and policy.