#HellNoBarbie

NBC recently reported on Hello Barbie – the latest iteration of the world-famous doll. This particular model of the little blonde is revolutionary in two ways: first, it talks to children, and second, it does so via a WiFi connection. The article elaborates that the toy can “carry on a seemingly real conversation by recording what the child says and sending it via Wi-Fi to the cloud for Barbie’s computer-generated response”. At first this seems like a natural progression in an ever-increasingly-digital world – our refrigerators and door locks are online now! Besides, younger and younger children are using the internet, joining social media, and carrying smartphones. Sounds great, right?

Not so fast! As it turns out the conversations are going to be recorded and, what’s worse, kept indefinitely by Mattel’s partner in this endeavor, ToyTalk. Clearly there is room for concern here regarding children’s privacy, as well as the potential to market to little kids, which is morally questionable, at best. The Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood (CCFC) is leading the charge against Barbie, claiming:

Hello Barbie is a terrible toy that threatens children’s privacy, well-being and creativity… We must stop Mattel and ToyTalk from spying on children’s private play and spawning a whole host of eavesdropping imitators.

Mattel, of course, defended their position and reiterated that children’s safety and privacy are their primary concerns. The company promised that there would be no advertising to children using this latest doll and made clear that parental consent would be required before the WiFi/AI feature was activated. Of course, nothing stops the toy giant from altering their terms and conditions (that are probably not well understood by consumers to begin with) at a later date, diminishing the defense of the Barbie. The official justification for these recordings is that they can help ToyTalk refine their software to better understand children’s speech patterns and, in turn, improve their interactions with Barbie. Mattel and ToyTalk also claim perfect transparency when it comes to their product and even provide a list of all the phrases that the Barbie can say, although it is a whole 270 pages with close to seven thousand sentences!

Interestingly, parental control does not stop at merely giving consent. Parents will actually be able to go online and listen to the recorded conversations between their child and Barbie. Privacy issues don’t stop there either, however – there other concerns, such as if the doll records a particular child’s friends’ conversations (violating their privacy), or the possibility that these recordings could be used in divorce proceedings and trials.

Meanwhile, social media has a new trending hashtag: #hellnobarbie, undoubtedly a poke at the official name of the doll – Hello Barbie. As of the time of writing, the hashtag had over 6k Tweets and 4.5k followers and growing. Perhaps we aren’t quite read to let pre-teens loose into the world of social media and electronic communication, though it will be interesting to see how Mattel and ToyTalk end up dealing with this seemingly unexpected, yet significant, backlash.

9 comments

  1. Lev, your post brings up some real concerns about privacy for children and even for parents (their conversations might be accidentally recorded as well). I can only imagine the plethora of issues that could arise from having Hello Barbie present in a room, where you think no one is around to hear/listen to you. The picture at the end basically sums up how I was feeling reading your post – what’s to stop the government from using tools such as this to invade people’s privacy?

    I grew up playing with Barbies much like other little girls, and I miss the simplicity of how toys/dolls used to be. The purpose of toys was to stimulate imagination, but with the Internet at children’s fingertips, that purpose might not be as prevalent as it once was, which is truthfully a shame. Great post!

    1. Thanks Jaimie! Interesting point about government surveillance – I’m sure it wouldn’t take much for them to intercept these communications between children and their Barbie dolls. Reminds me of the time a couple of years ago when MSNBC host Melissa Harris-Perry proclaimed that your children aren’t yours and actually belong to the community – I’m sure Orwell was spinning in his grave! That said, I absolutely agree that simple toys are the best toys.

  2. Nice post. I admit that I hadn’t heard of this one before. Frankly, I’m a bit surprised that Mattel waded into this whole area, because it seems that the legal liabilities are potentially really high for all the reasons that you mention.

  3. Thanks for sharing this.This would definitely freak me out if I was a parent. Just goes to show how easy it is for something that is meant to be new and innovative to turn out to be an invasion of privacy. Although they say that safety of children is their main concern, it is hard to justify getting these barbies for your children when you know “the cloud” is such an uncertain means of the internet. It is hard to tell where this information is going and what is truly safe. I think that there definitely needs to be some adjustments if they plan on trying to make these barbies successful. Nice job!

  4. I’d like to think that the government has better things to do than spy on 6 year old children, but I’ve been wrong before. Clearly there are significant privacy issues and I’m pretty shocked to hear that Mattel plans to store all of the voice recordings for an indefinite amount of time. Seems like parents should have a week or so to listen to the recordings and they should then be deleted entirely. COPPA (Children’s Online Privacy Protection) is incredibly strict in terms of what you can/cannot do when marketing to children, so I’m sure Mattel and ToyTalk are seriously toeing the line with this new endeavor. Going back to the government – if they really wanted to spy on us they’ve got the camera’s in our laptops and GPS tracking in our phones! **puts on tinfoil hat**

    1. They definitely have the capability to track us via GPS in our phones and to turn on our smartphone and laptop cameras. This has been documented before. **wraps tinfoil blanket tighter**

  5. ariellebudney · ·

    Great post! You mentioned a lot of really important privacy concerns regarding young children. Personally, I don’t like the precedent this is setting. It now seems like a very short leap to start directly collecting data directly from children and using it to market at them. It seems like we’re introducing children to technology at younger and younger ages; 9 year-olds already have iPhones, do we really need to get 5 year-olds hooked too? Aside from privacy implications, I’m also worried about the developmental implications. The point of playing with dolls is making up the story yourself, and imagining the potential conversations. This barbie is a step in the wrong direction for young kids developing their creativity and imagination. Great job!

  6. Very interesting post. I did not know that this was a toy that even existed, nor had I seen the hashtag! This seems, on a very simple level, like a good idea. Kids have a great imagination and if their Barbie can talk to them, it might just be the most exciting thing in the world. I absolutely understand though, on a more complex level, the serious concerns that this capability may foster. Kids may have a strange, dependent relationship with their doll and who knows what that could possibly lead to. They also could possibly be victims of glitches, like we have seen with Siri, that teach them things that are inappropriate for them to know. Interesting topic, I would definitely like to be informed on the progress in the future!

  7. rebeccajin06 · ·

    Wow, heard about this new product but did not know the extent of the security issues associated with it. This definitely relates back to the growing discussion surrounding how advanced (invasive) we want our technology to become. In some ways, this new Barbie could be a great way for shy little kids to feel like they have a friend when no one else is around. But on the other hand, there are so many negative implications that I could never see myself purchasing one of these dolls for a child. Not only are there privacy concerns with Barbie storing conversations and sending this data back to the company, I would not want to trust a cloud-controlled voice system with a young child. Imagine if all little kids could ask important life questions to Siri? What if a five year old had access to the internet through Siri to ask, “where do babies come from?” It sounds silly but this could actually become a huge problem for child development! This is definitely a fascinating new product on behalf of Mattel but unfortunately I think for all the wrong reasons. Thanks for sharing, Lev!

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