Remember when you thought your mechanical ringing toy phone was cutting-edge? Now that toy phone is a smart toy — meaning that it not only has a real screen, but it can show ads and send that information to marketers. A lot has changed in the toy aisle since you were a kid. Technology is everywhere and it’s unavoidable — even, it seems, for our youngest humans. And with more and more apps, toys, gadgets and other tech aimed at preschoolers, toddlers and even infants, it can make a mom want to pull all the plugs and live off the grid.
First things first: What is a smart toy? Much like smart tech in general (sometimes called the “Internet of Things“), a smart toy is one that uses the Internet, a connection to the Cloud, Bluetooth connectivity, mobile apps, software, coding or another form of artificial intelligence to interact with and adapt to your child as he or she plays with it. Think an Internet-connected doll that allows your child to leave it voice messages or a robot animal that develops a personality over time.
The main difference between smart toys and toys that come with a few pre-recorded phrases is that smart toys basically “learn” as your child interacts with it. A smart toy is also not necessarily a toy that claims to make your baby more intelligent (though some of those toys may fall under the umbrella category of smart toys).
They may sound a little weird and even scary (no one likes to imagine their child’s toy has a mind of its own!), but smart toys can be an important and fun teaching tool. It all comes down to doing your research, setting appropriate limits and picking gadgets you can use together as a family. To help you navigate these uncharted waters, we asked two experts to walk us through everything you need to consider before you invest in baby’s first smart toy.
1. Erase “electronic babysitter” from your vocabulary. The number one rule of buying any type of technology for your young child — whether it be an app on your phone, a smartwatch, a wifi-enabled toy (such as a doll that can talk to your child and remember what he or she says) or some other gadget — is to remember the entire purpose of it should be to foster social interaction and a better relationship between you and your little one. “Without a parent involved, children won’t learn how to self-regulate and solve problems,” says Mayra Mendez, Ph.D., LMFT, a licensed family psychotherapist at Providence Saint John’s Child and Family Development Center in Santa Monica, California. Her rule of thumb? Pick only toys you can use with your child.
2. Be careful of things with screens. Not all smart toys involve using a screen but many do, and with that comes some health and developmental risks. “The tech is advancing faster than the development we expect of our children,” says Danelle Fisher, MD, FAAP, chair of pediatrics at Providence Saint John’s Health Center in Santa Monica, California. The rapid-fire images, colors and sounds can be too much for young children as their brains are not equipped to handle those things like adult brains are, she says. In addition, the blue light emitted by screens has been shown to disrupt natural circadian rhythms which can mess up their sleeping and feeding routines.
Your best bet is to follow the American Academy of Pediatrics’ (AAP) screen time recommendations, which means no screen time at all for kids under 2, and slowly introducing “high-quality” screen time (the AAP recommends educational programming, such as Sesame Workshop) to kids aged 18-24 months. Once your child celebrates his or her second birthday, the AAP says your child should have no more than an hour of high-quality screen time per day.
3. The time to start protecting their privacy is now. Kids will grow up into teens and then adults (sooner than you think!) so it’s important to start protecting their privacy, both online and in real life, now. Many parents are shocked to discover how many smart toys are able to store and send personal data. “With any smart toy you have to ask yourself ‘What kind of data is flowing?'” Fisher explains. Make sure you read the box and check online forums to find out what exactly the toy can and cannot do and look for toys where you can disable online connectivity (you can also find out if the manufacturer is certified by one of these Federal Trade Commission-approved groups, which means they’ve verified that they’ve put certain measures in place to protect your child’s privacy).
4. Get the best of both worlds with integrated toys. When it comes to toys, it doesn’t have to be a choice between playing with the latest high-tech gadget or sitting in the mud knocking rocks together. Young children are incredibly adaptable in their play so take advantage of this by looking for toys that integrate traditional methods and new technology, Mendez says. For instance, a stuffed animal that comes with an associated app, allowing your child to play with the animal alone and also create a backstory for them online. This way your child will start to become comfortable with the technologies that permeate our society while still being able to disconnect and play on their own when they want to.
5. Safety first! “Tiny watch batteries, the kind often found in smart toys, are what keep every pediatrician up at night,” Fisher says. Not only can they be choking hazards but if swallowed, they can be deadly. This is why it’s so important to closely examine any toy for loose pieces, easily opened battery compartments and other hazards —even if they are marked as safe for children under three, she adds. Smart toys often have more components than “plain” toys so make sure there is nothing your child can swallow, take apart or get shocked by.
6. The more active participation required, the better. Sitting and swiping at a screen, Fruit Ninja style, may be placating to toddlers but it isn’t doing them any good. Instead, look for toys and games that require more participation from your child, Mendez says. “Playing should never be a passive activity for kids,” she adds. Some examples include apps that require your child to talk to it, count or type; stuffed animals that need to be held, rocked, danced with or talked to; games that are based around physical activity; or kits that require pieces to be manipulated or put together.
7. Choose toys that mimic real-life objects. Adults use technology all the time in our society and while we want our kids to stay kids as long as possible, we also need to start teaching them how to use the things they’re surrounded with, Fisher says. You can use their natural interest in what you’re doing as a teaching moment. “Every baby wants their parent’s cell phone, iPad and electronic key fob so it makes sense to buy them smart toys that mimic those things,” she says. They get to test and play with basic electronics and you don’t have to worry about drool-proofing your iPhone. Just make sure you’re modeling good tech behavior (as in, put down your phone during meal times!) because they’ll mimic everything you do with it, she adds.
8. Involve all your child’s senses. One of the ways babies learn is by putting things in their mouth. While adults may find this gross (or hilarious), young children learn by using all their senses so playtime should stimulate as many as possible, Mendez says. “A lot of technology is based on simply seeing and hearing so look for smart toys that offer a variety of things to touch, smell, and mouth,” she explains. Be careful to limit toy time, however, as babies and toddlers can quickly go from having fun to overstimulated. She recommends no more than 5-10 minutes a day for infants, an hour or less for toddlers, and two hours or less for preschoolers.
9. Avoid the genius hype but do emphasize learning. The first three years of your child’s life are a crucial period for learning, Mendez says. Smart toys, used in moderation, can help children learn vocabulary, speech, reading, math and spatial skills, all while having fun. Forget labels that promise to make your child an Einstein or read as toddler — those are usually false anyhow — and look for toys with a purpose beyond entertainment, she says. And, of course, remember that your child’s best teacher is you.