Molly Hayssen

Issues with Technology Use During Early Childhood

For the second year in a row, Mattel has faced criticism for a high-tech toy it plans to release. Last year’s “Hello Barbie” was introduced despite criticism over the security risks inherent in a doll that records all the conversations it has with a child.1 This year, Mattel had hoped to introduce a device called Aristotle, a smart hub meant to be used by children beginning in infancy.2 For babies, the device could turn on a nightlight or lullaby if they began to fuss, and older children could ask for help with homework.3 However, they have preemptively cancelled Aristotle’s launch after several childhood cybersecurity and health experts raised concerns over how heavily involved the device would become in a child’s life.4 Though their main objection was with the intimate profile the device, and therefore Mattel, would be able to assemble about the children, still other questions have been raised about the role this device, like many other smart devices aimed towards children, could play as a substitute for parental interaction.5

The American Association of Pediatricians (AAP) recently published a policy statement meant to help doctors and parents structure children’s access to screens and technology.6 These guidelines recommend no more than one hour of “screen time” for children under the age of five, and even that much only so long as there is constant parental supervision and interaction.7 Parents should be present to help children understand what is being said and understand how the program is relevant to their own lives. As the guidelines explain, early media use in children can lead to increased risk of obesity, trouble sleeping, and developmental issues.8

In response to Mattel’s Aristotle, experts expressed concern that children would develop inappropriate emotional attachments to the device rather than to their parents.9 Even two hours of screen time per day in children as young as four can lead to decreased attention spans and increased victimization from peers.10 If, during that time, there is also atypical emotional development through attachment to a device like Aristotle rather than the parents, the effects of screen-use may be exacerbated. Based on proven data showing that excessive internet use in adolescents may contribute to risky behaviors such as substance use, gambling, and delinquency, any correlation between technology use and altered development should be scrutinized.11

In addition to the developmental concerns associated with childhood technology use, there are also privacy concerns. In light of the numerous cyberattacks on companies such as Target, Yahoo, and Equifax, consumers should be concerned about the privacy of their digital footprint.12 This concern should only be increased when the digital information is that of children. These types of smart hubs invite the possibility of hackers taking control of the microphone in the device and listening in on the child.13 They would have access to information such as how often an infant is fussy at night or which stuffed animal is the child’s favorite, in addition to any conversations conducted within range of the device.14

Regulations like the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act (COPPA) were passed to ensure that parents retain control over the information learned about their children in the internet.15 However, this act only protects children under the age of thirteen.16 Companies might welcome this birthday, due to the restrictions placed by the act, but this would require knowing the child’s birthday and tracking when COPPA would no longer apply. Companies like Amazon have, in the past, required parents to give permission for their children to use the device, but only when the child attempts to use apps targeted at a juvenile age range.17 Though the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) has updated COPPA to more specifically cover devices such as Amazon’s Alexa and Google Home, the law will always lag behind technology.18

As evidenced by Mattel’s decision not to release Aristotle, pushback from children’s cybersecurity and childhood development experts can affect corporate decisions.19 But even as this device is prevented from entering the market, others are surely in development. With the increased availability, and reliance, on smart-hub devices, likely many will be targeted towards children. In the absence of legal regulation of these fields, it is up to industry groups such as AAP to keep parents informed of the potential medical risks of these devices. However, they are likely fighting a losing battle. Children these days are connected to technology at an earlier and earlier age, a trend that shows no sign of changing.20

GLTR Staff Member; Georgetown Law, J.D. expected 2019; St. Lawrence University, B.S. 2011. ©2018, Molly Hayssen.