First robots came for our jobs, now they’re coming for our kids

Does your child have a question? There’s a smart toy for that.

Welcome to the Internet of toys — an age that promises a cute animatronic to take on even the most tedious of parental tasks. You can now buy a WiFi-connected Smart Toy Monkey ($100) to tell your children a bedtime story, or the toy dinosaur Dino ($120) to answer those endless questions that start with, “Why?.” Edwin ($100), an app-connected duck, that can lull your newborn off to sleep with songs or placate your kindergartner with educational quizzes. Soon, you’ll even be able to give your 5-year-old a cute digital personal assistant called Smarty to nag them gently about their homework or turn out their lights.

It’s expensive to be a robot parent instead of buying a book and reading it yourself: Worldwide sales of these smart toys and their associated apps hit are expected to grow to about $11.2 billion by 2020, up from an estimated $2.8 billion in 2015. Of course, many parents already let their kids play with iPads while they’re cooking dinner or driving on long journeys, but digital smart toys enter a new territory: those quiet, intimate hours between a parent and young child.

Some experts say helicopter parenting is turning into robot parenting. Professional helicopter parents are focused on the career success of their students and manage their children’s schedule, often remotely. Pink helicopter parents build social networks with other elite families, Laura Hamilton, an associate professor at University of California-Merced and author of “Parenting to a Degree: How Family Matters for College Women’s Success,” told MarketWatch last year.

Going one electronic step further: The 3-foot-tall iPal is designed to keep children company. “It’s a robot for children,” Jiping Wang, founder of Avatar Mind, which makes the iPal, told the Guardian last year. “It’s mainly for companionship.” He told the paper it could keep young children occupied for “a couple of hours” when children get home from school and their parents are still at work.

Josh Golin, director of the non-profit Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood, says these toys engender a digital dependence early in childhood — in some cases, from a baby’s first weeks of life. Plus, “toys with computer-driven ‘personalities’ reduce a universe of potential imaginative scenarios to a small set of narratives shaped by corporations,” he said.

They’re not all incident-free either. Some toys require data. Advertised as “a message you can hug,” this US toy company allows parents to record and send messages through the accompanying app to their child’s teddy bear. But earlier this year more than two million of those recordings between parents and children were allegedly exposed to potential hackers, along with 800,000 emails and passwords to their accounts.

That teddy-bear breach shows that consumers should be paying more attention to what data they share with companies and use strong passwords, Michael Kaiser, executive director of the nonprofit National Cyber Security Alliance, a partnership organization between the Department of Homeland Security and private sector sponsors from the technology industry, told MarketWatch earlier this year.

Some parents don’t see a problem in automating play time or, even, bedtime. Stacey Seehafer Szenda, a parent of two daughters in Los Gatos, Calif., believes “it’s vitally important that our kids are allowed to grow with the times. Adults may not understand their world, because we were born in an age of rotary phone booths and the Yellow Pages.”

When technology starts taking over the routine tasks of parenting, it’s time to step back. Golin’s advice for parents is to limit screen time and adopt a strategy your grandmother would certainly have approved of: Let your kids get bored instead.

“Great things come from boredom,” he says. Many of these toys read to kids, so parents don’t have to, but that too is problematic, he adds. “When we read to our children before bedtime, we’re doing so much more than just telling them a story. We’re bonding, helping foster a sense of security, and letting children know that our time together is valuable.”


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