Nov. 9. 2015. Advocates Say “Hell No Barbie” to Stop Mattel from Spying on Kids

Contact: Josh Golin, (617) 896-9368, [email protected]

Boston–Monday, November 9, 2015–Today, Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood (CCFC) launched “Hell No Barbie,” a public education campaign about the dangers of Mattel’s new Wi-Fi enabled talking Hello Barbie doll. Hello Barbie records children’s private conversations and transmits them to cloud servers, where they are analyzed by algorithms, listened to by employees of Mattel’s partner ToyTalk, and shared with unnamed third parties. The doll’s responses are then tailored to reflect the child’s family, experiences, and likes and dislikes.

CCFC consulted with experts in child development, psychology, information technology, and privacy to compile “Eight Reasons to Leave Hello Barbie on the Shelf.” Concerns include children confiding in the doll without understanding that their words will be heard by others; the potential misuse of recordings of these private conversations; and that play guided and scripted by corporations will undermine creative play. To illustrate the eight reasons, CCFC also created shareable #HellNoBarbie images for social media:

“Hello Barbie is a terrible toy that threatens children’s privacy, wellbeing, and creativity,” said CCFC’s Executive Director Josh Golin. “We must stop Mattel and ToyTalk from spying on children’s private play and spawning a whole host of eavesdropping imitators.” 

Last spring, nearly 45,000 people signed petitions urging Mattel not to release Hello Barbie. Industry analysts are predicting Hello Barbie will be a “Hot Toy” this holiday season, so CCFC is urging its members to use social media and the hashtag #HellNoBarbie to counter the hype. 

Eight Reasons to Leave Hello Barbie on the Shelf 

1) Children’s private conversations shouldn’t be shared with corporations or strangers.

Children confide in dolls and reveal intimate details about their lives, but Hello Barbie won’t keep those secrets. When Barbie’s belt buckle is held down, everything your child says is transmitted to cloud servers where it will be stored and analyzed by ToyTalk, Mattel’s technology partner. Employees of ToyTalk and their partner corporations listen to recordings of children’s conversations–and ToyTalk won’t even say who their partners are

“Kids using Hello Barbie aren’t only talking to a doll, they are talking directly to a toy conglomerate whose only interest in them is financial. It’s creepy-and creates a host of dangers for children and families.” – Susan Linn, EdD, author of The Case for Make Believe: Saving Play in a Commercialized World

2) Is Hello Barbie a “friend,” or a viral marketer?

Mattel says “there is no advertising content within Hello Barbie,” and “your children’s conversations will not be used to advertise to your child.” But Mattel doesn’t define what it means by “advertise.” Will Hello Barbie discuss other Barbie products with children? Her script already includes several lines of dialogue about her sisters, who have dolls of their own for sale on Mattel has also acknowledged that Hello Barbie will talk to children about pop culture, and the doll’s script will be updated to discuss the latest movies and music. Isn’t that marketing? How does Mattel decide which artists and media Barbie talks about? And when Mattel and ToyTalk update their privacy policy, they could use Hello Barbie-and the valuable information it collects-to advertise to children. That means parents (if they are even aware of the privacy policy changes) will face a terrible choice: allow Hello Barbie to market to their child, or take their child’s “friend” away.

“If I had a young child, I would be very concerned that my child’s intimate conversations with her doll were being recorded and analyzed. Hello Barbie asks many questions that would elicit a great deal of information about a child, her interests, and her family. This information could be of great value to advertisers and be used to market unfairly to children.” – Angela Campbell, Director, Communications and Technology Clinic, Georgetown Law

3) Hello Barbie undermines creative play.

Dolls have always talked-through the power of children’s imaginations. Children should use their own initiative and creativity to hold conversations with a doll, impart a personality, and build their relationships. With Hello Barbie, Mattel and ToyTalk’s programmers and algorithms drive the conversation, undermining the creative play that is so critical to children’s development. 

“What children can imagine about Hello Barbie is constrained. If she has a distinct personality, then she can no longer be whatever a child wants her to be, nor can she evolve over time as the child matures. Children playing with Hello Barbie get a host of messages about what they are supposed to think, what they should care about, and what sorts of responses are appropriate in conversation. If we never have to use creativity and imagination, we are unlikely to develop them and keep them working.” – Tracy Gleason, PhD, professor of psychology, Wellesley College

4) Surveillance has no place in children’s play.

In an era where corporations monitor what we say, where we go, what we buy, and who our friends are, Hello Barbie will instill exactly the wrong habits in children. Children should be taught to protect their privacy, not encouraged to divulge their private thoughts to a device that will share their secrets far and wide.

“Toys that listen to children, record their intimate thoughts on corporate servers, and use artificial intelligence to ‘communicate’ with them present risks for individual kids and our culture. Surveillance camouflaged as play gamifies corporate data collection, obscuring the significant dangers posed by the loss of control over one’s personal information, and making the transfer of such sensitive data to unaccountable third parties seem fun and natural. Do we want our children growing up in a world in which they have no consciousness of what it means to have a private life? If an evil genius wanted to create a toy to normalize ubiquitous (if stealthy) surveillance while simultaneously exacerbating social alienation, I can’t imagine a better option.” – Kade Crockford, Director, Technology for Liberty program, ACLU of Massachusetts

5) Children deserve a genuine listener, not a robot.

Children naturally confide in their dolls and share their deepest feelings. At a tender age, they need to have their feelings genuinely heard and validated, and they should be sympathized with, uplifted, and supported. Children learn best from sincere dialogue with a real listener.

“Sociable robots such as Hello Barbie offer pretend empathy, but they have no empathy to offer because they don’t know the arc of a human life. They can deliver only performances of empathy and connection.” – Sherry Turkle, PhD, author of Reclaiming the Conversation: The Power of Talk in a Digital Age

6) Why let the Barbie brand have more influence over your child?

Barbie’s unattainable body type and her preoccupation with fashion and gender-stereotyped pursuits are well-documented. Research has found that girls have a more limited sense of what kinds of careers they can have when they grow up after playing with Barbie, and that girls’ exposure to images of Barbie correlates with lower body satisfaction and a desire to be thin. Mattel asserts that Hello Barbie is different, but the doll sports the same unrealistic body type, and sure likes to talk about fashion. 

“So now that we’ve used our imagination and played games, let’s get serious and talk about something really important… FASHION!” – Mattel’s script for Hello Barbie

“Barbie has a long history of undermining the healthy development and creative play of girls, through her focus on an unrealistic body image, fixation on appearance and fashion, and underestimation of girls’ intelligence. The Barbie brand epitomizes the commercialized takeover and sexualization of play. Let’s not give the brand even more influence by allowing Hello Barbie to have one-on-one, “personalized” conversations with young children, who do not yet have the cognitive skills necessary to understand or resist her lure.” – Diane Levin, PhD, co-author of So Sexy So Soon: The New Sexualized Childhood and What Parents Can Do to Protect Their Kids

7) Even parents shouldn’t listen to secret recordings of their children. 

A child expects their intimate conversations with a doll to be private. But parents can access audio files of their child’s conversations with Hello Barbie through daily or weekly email reports. Think back to how you played with dolls when you were young, and imagine how you would have felt if you learned that your parents were listening to recordings of everything you said.

“Listening in to Hello Barbie recordings creates a dishonest relationship between children and parents. It’s one thing to casually listen at the door while a child says their prayers or reads their private letter to Santa, but it’s another to be regularly surveilling conversations that children think are private. The developmental effects of not having a private space can be huge.” – Sharon Lamb, EdD, PhD, Professor of Counseling and School Psychology, UMass Boston, and co-author of Packaging Girlhood: Rescuing Our Daughters from Marketers’ Schemes 

8) Hello Barbie is vulnerable to data breaches. 

Hello Barbie’s recordings of children’s conversations are vulnerable to data breaches, like all information transmitted via the Internet and stored on the cloud. In addition, media reports indicate Hello Barbie could be a tempting target for hackers, who could access data stored by your family on home devices and networks through the doll. ToyTalk has acknowledged: “No way that we are claiming that the doll can’t be hacked.”

“As a computer scientist and privacy advocate, it’s clear to me that there’s no level of legal or technological ‘protection’ that you can apply to Hello Barbie’s recordings to keep them safe. This dubious idea should have been scrapped by either the legal or ethics team before it got the green light for design and production. As a parent, I will not purchase a device like this and will actively boycott Mattel and its affiliates should this product be released.” – Jeremy Hansen, PhD, CISSP, Assistant Professor, Computer Science, Norwich University