Take Caution Buying Children Digital Toys, Tablets and Apps

Many children are asking for tablets, video games and digital toys this holiday season. Before you buy, really learn what you are introducing – and our suggestion is consider waiting. This year, companies such as Google were pressured to change their data collection practices. In 2020, we may just see some change from other companies, too.

American Academy of Pediatrics Study

The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) issued a report called, “Young Children in the Digital Era,” in January 2019. We encourage parents to read this, as the AAP urges pediatricians to take a greater role in guiding parents on age-appropriate toys and safe use. The organization’s message: playing with toys is how children develop warm and supportive relationships. Choose your family’s toys around that goal. 

Devices: Cell Phones & Tablets

Is your child asking for a cell phone or tablet? Tread very carefully here. The AAP recommends limiting video game and computer game use.

AAP’s Daily Recommendations for Children’s Screen Time

  • Children 18 to 24 months should have no screen time, including television and computer use.
  • Children 2 year or order should have less than one hour of screen time daily.
  • Children younger than 5 should play developmentally-appropriate computer or video games. They should be accompanied by a parent or caretaker.

According to the AAP report, 38 percent of U.S. children under age 2 have used a mobile electronic device; 80 percent of children between 2 and 4 years old have as well.

The American Heart Association has also issued an advisory, saying Americans face potential health consequences if they keep reaching for their tablets. These risks include obesity, cardiovascular disease and high cholesterol from all the sitting around. There is also the “blue screen” effect. When children struggle to sleep, this also contributes to the risk for obesity. 

First the Tablet, Then the Video Apps

Before you buy your child a tablet, really think about your reason for doing so.

Consider removing the pre-installed video apps in place of ad-free alternatives. Or download a few books or TV episodes so your child isn’t encouraged to surf the web or apps. This will slow things down as you learn about the device.

A controlled approach is important because the number of children and teens watching online videos every day has more than doubled, according to a October 2019 survey from Common Sense Media.

  • More than half of all 8 to 12-year-olds watch online videos each day.
  • Nearly 70 percent of 13 to 18-year-olds watch.
  • At the same time, children are watching less TV on traditional sets with family members.
  • YouTube, a subsidiary of Google, maintains that users must be 13 and older, under its terms. Yet three quarters of the children and teens said they used the site.
  • Only 23 percent report watching YouTube Kids.

In the old days, when children wanted to watch TV, a parent could sit with them. If the child saw a commercial for a toy they wanted, they had to ask. That was a valuable process.

Today, children log on to apps, finding an entirely different world. The advertising, promotions and content are highly stimulating, costly and dangerous. And children are on their own.

Before you buy a tablet, come up with a schedule for when your child may use it. This doesn’t have to be everyday. Plan to sit with your child at times. Finally, store it out of reach so your child doesn’t have 24-7 access.

Game Apps

We recommend parents keep children off the marketplace apps, such as Google Play and the Apple Store. Each vendor also has a specialty game app: Google Games and the Apple Arcade.  It can be hard to resist all the advertising and choices.

The AAP conducted a study on digital ads and found at least one type of advertising on 95 percent of the most frequently downloaded apps for children age 5 and younger. 

Coming across just one banner ad is lucky. Children usually encounter multiple pop-up ads on game apps. In some cases, characters in the games may actually prompt your child to press the ads or make an in-app purchase. The Federal Trade Commission has found this type of practice illegal in children’s television programming, according to the New York Times. The FTC has been reviewing this practice in relation to video games.

Legal or not, it is more than a child should have to take on. One researcher told the The New York Times, “The first word that comes to my mind is furious.”

Age recommendations don’t help once a child sees a game or app. Fortnite, for instance, is technically marked for teen users. Still, children find their way on and you can now buy your children Fortnite clothes and toys at major retailers. This is bad news for parents, but a very successful business model for Epic Games, the maker of Fortnite.

Epic Games earned $2.4 billion from Fortnite in 2018, more than any other game in history, according to the Hollywood Reporter. Instead of offering in-game ads, it generates revenue by allowing players to buy in-game currency, “V-Bucks.” Companies can pay for development features, such as cosmetic skins, mission dances and other features (Source: Nielsen’s Superdata and DigiDay).

There are many interested companies. Last year, the NFL even held a 2-week sale of jersey in-game skins for players to buy. Remember, these are virtual jerseys, so why would anyone really need one? But a child who finds their way into the game is almost certain to want one. 

This is the new digital frontier for families and it’s intense for all of us. As a parent, you can help your child by limiting their tablet time to an hour each day – or less. Sit with them while they watch or play sometimes. Encourage them to play with other toys, friends or practice sports. 

Talk to anyone who spends time in your home – babysitters, relatives and friends – about your goals.  It doesn’t help if a family member comes over and logs onto Candy Crush.

The Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act

The Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act seeks to put parents in control of what information commercial websites collect from their children online. This requires companies which collect personal data from children under age 13 to notify their parents and get permission. This includes companies which sell smart toys, as well as digital services and websites. 

Carefully inspect all toys. You may remember the My Friend Cayla doll, complete with her camera, microphone and Internet connection. She recorded what children said and searched the web – skills that got her banned by Germany in 2017. Companies are no longer hiding behind just dolls. Amazon has introduced the Echo Dot Kids, while Mattel came close to launching its Aristotle smart device in 2017. By the way, here is an article if you are considering an Echo Dot Kids.

Also beware of the educational websites and library products. Companies may build a digital profile on your family’s activity and use it to customize ads or promotions to your family, through email and other channels. Whenever you use a product, ask if it complies with the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act. Ask what information will be collected and how it will be used. You can also search online for any past violations involving the company or product. This way you will know what the past concerns have been.

The good news is companies are being forced to work on children’s privacy. This includes Google, which in September 2019, agreed to pay $170 million to settle claims that its YouTube subsidiary was knowingly collecting information from children under 13 without parental consent – and using the data to target children for advertising. This is the largest fine ever levied for a Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act violation, according to Consumer Reports.

For parents, it’s worth watching any story involving the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act in 2020. Many of them are sure to involve the tablets, smart devices and digital toys your children want or already own. You can follow Google’s updates on the YouTube blog.  You can also follow the FTC website.

Other Steps Families Can Take
As a parent, remember to practice safe data practices as well. It’s unfortunate that companies track so much of our activity. But they are and all we can do is learn the tools available to us. If you are a Google user, you can visit your profile activity regularly and make adjustments on what data is gathered. Do the same if you have set up a Gmail account for your children. Other email services may offer the same tool.

Carefully consider whether you want to bring electronic digital home assistants into your home. They make it easy to turn on our lights, listen to your favorite song or look up a recipe, but there have been many troubling news reports on privacy concerns. Children also love these assistants and now that some of these have screens, you are essentially giving them opportunity for more screen time. Trust us. Your children will find their way to the videos.

About Breakstone, White & Gluck – Toy Safety Lawyers – Defective Toy Lawyers

The Boston law firm of Breakstone, White & Gluck shares our toy safety tips as part of our Project KidSafe campaign. Our attorneys founded our Project KidSafe campaign in 2013 and we are committed to the safety and well-being of children and families in Massachusetts. Our campaign has worked to promote safety in the areas of bicycle safety, head injury prevention and toy safety.

Our firm represents those who have been injured by negligence in cases involving personal injury, motor vehicle accidents, medical malpractice and product liability cases, including defective toys and children’s products. If you have been injured, learn your legal rights by contacting 800-379-1244 or 617-723-7676. You can also our contact form.