The holiday shopping season is in full swing, and local health officials recently warned parents of the dangers posed by “smart toys” and devices that collect and store data.
Several BayCare Health System representatives joined U.S. Rep Kathy Castor Nov. 22 at St. Joseph’s Children’s Hospital to discuss the latest Trouble in Toyland report. The Florida PIRG Education Fund has compiled the annual children’s shopping guide for over 30 years.
The 2023 report focuses on threats presented by gifts with microphones, cameras, location trackers and artificial intelligence (AI). It also highlights choking hazards, recalled and counterfeit toys.
“Toys are meant to bring joy, not tragedy,” Castor said. “Parents are really grasping for tools that they need to protect their kids.”
According to the extensive report, the smart toy market grew from $14.1 billion in 2022 to $16.7 billion this year. Researchers expect that to double by 2027.
Earlier this year, the Federal Trade Commission accused Amazon of storing voice recordings indefinitely through its Alexa service and failing to delete transcripts, violating the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act. The report states that many holiday wish lists include stuffed animals that listen and talk, devices that learn habits, games with online accounts and toys that require mobile app downloads.
In addition to Amazon, Castor said federal officials sanctioned Xbox and YouTube for gathering children’s online data. Trouble in Toyland notes that in October, a man kidnapped an 11-year-old girl he encountered while playing the popular Roblox mobile game.
Authorities found the girl safe about 135 miles away from her home. Dr. Carlos Abanses, medical director of the Steinbrenner Emergency & Trauma Center, said parents should not allow children to link games with social media accounts or provide personal information.
“But the other thing about this is no one knows how kids are going to develop with the virtual reality and how it’s kind of affecting kids,” Abanses said.
He said “really loud” headsets can affect hearing and noted virtual reality’s potential psychological risks. “No longer are you holding a controller, but now you see yourself actually holding a gun and those kinds of things,” Abanses explained.
Tracy Kaly, director of clinical operations at BayCare Behavioral Health, said the amount of time children spend online has nearly doubled since the pandemic. She said researchers have found links between soaring screen time and bullying, obesity and eating and sleeping disorders.
“Most problematic is we’re seeing some increases in overall depression and anxiety after screentime and digital use,” Kaly added. “We really want to be able to help our youth create healthy boundaries with the technology they’re using.”
Robert Carvajal, director of information security for BayCare, called AI “the engine” behind the latest toys. He warned that it builds and stores online information profiles susceptible to hackers.
Carvajal said some mobile games provide parental controls to limit access and data storage. He said parents could also disable internet connectivity and remove features that allow social interactions.
While the 2023 Trouble in Toyland report focuses on evolving technological threats, more traditional gifts pose safety hazards. Despite advancements in safety protocols, Abanses said many children still choke on button batteries and toy magnets.
He added that water beads also remain a local concern. Abanses said the tiny, squishy balls often used as sensory toys quickly expand when ingested and block airways.
“The usual kind of thing that we see the most on Christmas is all these fun toys to ride, like scooters and bicycles … and we see a lot of head injuries,” Abanses said. “Get helmets with these purchases.”
According to the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission, doctors treated over 206,000 kids for toy-related injuries in 2021. To read the full Trouble in Toyland report, visit the website here.