Santa's Seven Favorite Surveillance Toys of 2022

Santa's Seven Favorite Surveillance Toys of 2022

These new tech toys could harvest kids' data, strain mental health, and expose them to online creeps.

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Photo: Jeff J Mitchell (Getty Images)

It’s the holiday season and now, maybe more than ever, kids around the world are begging their parents for the next shiny gadgets and gizmos. While there’s no shortage of enticing new tech toys to choose from, recent revelations unearthed from The Facebook Papers and academic research show the potentially troubling effects internet-connected devices (particularly those with links to social media) can have on the mental health of kids and teens. Data brokers and harvesters, meanwhile, are as eager as ever to siphon up younger users’ personal data.

It’s with those concerns in mind that nonprofit child safety organization ParentsTogether decided to put together its 2022 Dangerous Tech Toys report. The organization says it compiled the list, not necessarily as a “what not to buy” list, but rather to serve as a conversation piece to help parents learn about the dangers some seemingly innocuous toys could pose.

“As we approach the holiday season, parents are starting to think about what gifts to buy their children, and with kids spending so much time online between school and play, tech products are inevitably coming up,” ParentsTogether, Campaign Director Shelby Knox said in a statement. “We want to make sure that parents are equipped with the information they need to keep their kids safe and informed, as we’ve seen time and time again that we can’t trust huge tech companies that put profit before safety.”

That said, if you did happen to buy one of these devices for your kids, we promise we won’t tell anyone if you start reaching for the receipt or rip out the batteries. Keep reading through to see some of the most dangerous tech toys for kids and teens, according to the ParentsTogether report.

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YouTube Premium Subscription

YouTube Premium Subscription

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If you’re anything like this writer, YouTube bombards you with countless pop-ups and interruptions encouraging you to upgrade to their paid subscription tier. That constant prodding is annoying enough on its own, but ParentsTogether says the subscription may move beyond annoying and actually present real danger when served up to young users.

The $11.99 paid tier removes YouTube’s incessant ads from videos and grants full access to YouTube music and a selection of original content. It also, according to ParentsTogether, comes with a risk of addiction and creepy adult interactions. While YouTube age restricts adult content, young users can easily work around those guardrails and even stumble upon violent or sexual content. And while experts disagree on the science behind just how harmful social media can be on a psychological level, ParentsTogether boldly proclaims YouTube is, “designed to be addictive.”

The reality is, like most social media, teens and kids are going to make their way online one way or another. Still, it’s best not to make it easier than necessary.

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Smart Phones, Smart Watches, and Internet Connected Devices

Smart Phones, Smart Watches, and Internet Connected Devices

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Photo: Mario Tama (Getty Images)

Okay, this is an obvious but incredibly difficult entry. Mobile internet-connected devices are a flashing target for advertisers, online creeps, hackers, and even foreign state governments all eager to siphon up users’ data. The intimacy and immediacy of access granted by mobile devices potentially makes the harms associated with other tech products, like social media and games, all the more pervasive. At the same time though, restricting people from using mobile devices in 2023 is increasingly akin to preventing people from walking outside. Even if you did want to keep phones out of kids’ hands, the battle’s lost for most teens. As of 2019, Pew Research estimated nearly all (95%) of U.S. teens had access to smartphones.

Still, ParentTogether recommends taking steps to limit children’s use of social media, particularly those who are under the age of 13. The less time they spend on their phones and on social media, the fewer data advertising firms can siphon up from them. ParentsTogether estimates online advertising firms already have 72 million data points on an average kid by the time they reach the age of 13.

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Meta Quest 2 Virtual Reality Headset

Meta Quest 2 Virtual Reality Headset

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Photo: Justin Sullivan (Getty Images)

With Meta’s long-term ambition for the metaverse still many years and many billions of dollars away, virtual reality games tailored toward young audiences remain one of the most reliable use cases for the new technology. That doesn’t mean it’s necessarily great for kids.

Kids who game in virtual reality, ParentsTogether warns, frequently report accounts of either stalking, bullying, or even sexual harassment directed towards their avatars. In some cases, child accounts were able to skirt past restrictions and access virtual strip clubs. On the hardware side, Meta’s headset is equipped with a camera and a microphone which the group alleges could collect data about a child’s conversation.

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HidrateSpark PRO Smart Water Bottle

HidrateSpark PRO Smart Water Bottle

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Screenshot: HidrateSpark

It’s a sign of the times when even a water bottle can potentially be used as a surveillance device. That, according to the report, is exactly the case with HidrateSpark’s smart water bottle which tracks a user’s water consumption and sends that to an app over Bluetooth. An LED puck located at the bottom of the bottle glows a color to alert users when it’s time to take a sip. In theory, the water bottle is intended to act as a hydration aid to ensure the chronically fatigued and headache-prone remember to drink more. You could also drink when you’re thirsty, but then there are no flashing LED lights.

Though some bad actors probably could find some yet unknown way to weaponize water consumption data, the real risk with HydrateSpark’s water bottle comes from its rudimentary use of location tracking. The water bottle also collects basic biographical details of users, including their height, weight, age, and activity level, the report notes.

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HiMirror Slide Smart Face Mirror

HiMirror Slide Smart Face Mirror

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Screenshot: HMirror

Middle school and high school can be rough to say the least, especially when it comes to physical appearance. That unfortunate reality makes tech solutions promising to enhance one’s appearance all the more threatening. That’s where the HiMirror smart face mirror comes in. The tablet-looking device comes equipped with a skin analyzer and ambient makeup lighting as well as the ability to use voice and video chat.

The risks presented by this smart mirror, according to ParentsTogether, are twofold. On one hand, the augmented reality features used on the device can potentially lead to similar body image and mental health issues linked with social media. Additionally, HiMirror requires users to upload an image of their face to “track the progress of their beauty goal.” Those images could then in theory be sold off or exposed in any potential data breach.

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Amazon Fire HD Kids Pro Edition

Amazon Fire HD Kids Pro Edition

Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos holds up the new Kindle Fire HD reading device in two sizes during a press conference on September 6, 2012
Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos holds up the new Kindle Fire HD reading device in two sizes during a press conference on September 6, 2012
Photo: David McNew (Getty Images)

A device with the word “kid” in the name has to be foolproof, right? Well, not exactly. Amazon bills its kid-focused tablet as a comparatively restricted device that lets users read books, watch media, listen to music, and download apps. Though parents can opt to block access to certain material, set time limits, and restrict automatic purchases to prevent their kids from maxing out their credit cards, the device still falls prey to many of the same data-sharing issues inherent to other devices. The device collects large amounts of data, which Amazon can then use to sell more products in the future.

Additionally, ParentsTogether alleges that third parties can potentially collect, use, and sell a child’s data and voice interaction through the Amazon Skills feature enabled on the Fire HD Kids Pro

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KidKraft Amazon Alexa 2-in-1 Kitchen & Market

KidKraft Amazon Alexa 2-in-1 Kitchen & Market

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Screenshot: KidKraft

KidKraft’s smart connected toy lets kids simulate the experience of gouging to a market and picking out groceries then bringing them back to cook in a virtual kitchen. Among other things, kids using the device get to have “fun” learning how to work a self-checkout machine. On the other side of the device, kids peruse through 34 interactive food items and 24 recipe cards. The device works in part by having kids engage with a connected Amazon Echo device.

If parents really can’t stand to be seen with their child in a grocery store and do decide to buy the KidKraft, ParentsTogether recommends they regularly review and delete voice recordings as well as have an earnest conversation with the child about keeping certain information, like their birthday, name or location, private while playing.

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