By Bieke Zaman, Donell Holloway, and Lelia Green
Meet Kibo, a robot that children can program by means of tangible blocks, or Trobo, another smart robot but one which interacts with children in joint storytelling and learning. Or have a look at the Osmo puzzle, which intelligently combines digital instructions and feedback with embodied learning.
These examples all belong to the emerging phenomenon called the Internet of Toys. This is made up of internet-connected smart toys that include hybrid products ranging from remote / app controlled toys like Sphero, or Hatchimals, to hybrid video games like the toys-to-life Skylander series.
Children’s traditional play objects are increasingly shaped by technological inventions like 3D printing, sensor technologies, and the Internet of Things.
These technological opportunities can add a new dimension to children’s play practices. Plush cuddly toys, play cubes, board games and figurines are no longer characterized solely by physical components, but can also include digital and online layers.
In this blog post, we shine a critical light upon young children’s engagement with the Internet of Toys. In doing so, we loosely follow Boczkowski and Siles’ (2014) theoretical framework of 4 intertwined perspectives for studying new media- and communication- technologies: at the intersections of production and consumption (of meaning), and content and materiality (of toys).
Children and parents as consumers
Firstly, the meaning making from play with internet-connected toys includes both physical and digital experiences. These processes are shaped by the play context, and may differ depending on whether smart toys are being used at home or in school. For instance, in the WOOPI project, we learned that hybrid play is facilitated by the variety of roles that both children and adults can take.
However, when we surveyed almost 1400 Flemish parents, 70% preferred that their child engage in physical play because of perceived benefits in terms of activity levels, health profile, creativity and imagination, and social and emotional development. Parents of young children have mixed feelings about digital technology. On the one hand, they want their child to develop strong digital skills; on the other hand, they favour ‘old-school’ physical activities such as playing football outdoors. Parents don’t generally want their child to sit in front of a screen for long periods of time.
Game, toy, and technology industry players
The second of our intertwined perspectives looks at the Internet of Toys from an industry perspective. It reveals that developers and innovators actively seek business opportunities from children’s emerging, converged media practices. The use of internet-connected toys allows industry to establish a contract for a child’s prolonged and developing use of the toy, with regular updates and ‘unlocked’ play potential in a freemium model. The cost of the toy is not solely the price paid. This model provides the traditional toy industry with a way to reinvent itself, compensating for a decrease in sales caused by the partial de-materialization of play. But parents need to check the running costs of an internet toy before they bring it home!
Discourses surrounding hybrid media content
The third quadrant in Boczkowski and Siles’ intertwining framework addresses the culturally ‘encoded’ and ‘decoded’ meanings of smart toys through discourses that surround their content. Bleumers et al. (2015) analyzed online reviews for 27 hybrid play products aimed at 4-6 year olds, selecting the top 10 ‘most helpful’ Amazon.com reviews for each toy (270 reviews in all). The analysis shows that parents like smart toys which: support children’s bodily movement and cognitive development; facilitate creative play; and entice children away from static screens.
Reviewing the media discourses around the Internet of Toys, however, Holloway and Green (2017) note concerns regarding the data privacy of children and families, the ownership of data produced through interactions with smart toys, and concerns about the terms and conditions imposed by industry players upon consumers.
Hybrid play affordances by design
Finally, from a technological perspective, we distinguish between how smart toys are being programmed and designed versus how these functional characteristics invite children to use them in particular ways. The user tests in the WOOPI project revealed that sensor-based interactive bracelets may encourage bodily movements, that interactive card games with a display-figurine have in-built feedback possibilities and allow for prolonged use, and that an interactive robot is likely to afford open-ended play. Although these findings cannot be generalized beyond the scope of the test situation, it clearly shows that the toys’ design characteristics shape play practices.
Unfortunately, Holloway and Green (2017) note that there is no evidence of ‘privacy by design’ and suggest that toy companies and their partners will continue to collect the data of very young children (too young to give their own consent) unless there is stronger regulation.
In conclusion, parents are generally welcoming the Internet of Toys into children’s lives because it offers new modes of play, learning, and the possibility of extreme personalization. Even so, our multi-perspective approach indicates that the dominant optimistic discourses surrounding the marketing of these toys distracts many consumers from paying attention to a range of potential risks, including privacy, economic cost and the dangers of hacking.
In this context, it is unfortunate that parents are often not aware that smart toys may compromise online security at home. Further, parents often don’t know how the toy company and its affiliates might use the personal data they collect. To account for that, the DigiLitEY consortium is creating a repository of tips and tricks that may help parents and educators create safe and enjoyable online experiences for their children.