Internet of Toys for Young Children: Educational Value or Threat?

Internet of Toys for Young Children: Educational Value or Threat?

Kleopatra Nikolopoulou
DOI: 10.4018/978-1-7998-6717-3.ch017
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The internet of toys (IoToys) is a new technological innovation that regards toys connected to the internet, while some such toys can adapt to the actions of the users-children. The purpose of this chapter is to discuss potential benefits and risks/threats associated with young children's engagement with IoToys. Potential benefits include opportunities for personalized play and learning, ownership, creativity, digital skills, and new types of interactions. In parallel, an internet-connected toy usually collects information about the users, can be hacked, and there are risks about children's privacy, personal data safety and security, as well as social risks. Safe conclusions cannot be drawn as to whether IoToys' potential educational value outweighs potential risks or vice versa. Potential risks arise strongly and seem difficult to be counterbalanced by potential opportunities. The play affordances of the hybrid toys, which are both educational and entertaining, are expected to contribute to new understandings of children's (digital) play.
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The Internet of Toys (IoToys) or internet-connected toys is the latest technological innovation and constitutes part of the growing world of the Internet of Things (Mascheroni & Holloway, 2019). Such toys are software-enabled and can be programmable robots, teddy bears, dolls, dinosaurs and watches, and all have in common the facility to be connected to the internet, while some involve the possibility to adapt to the actions of the users-children. Internet-connected toys can record different types of data (such as sounds, images, movements and locality), while they are not necessarily smart. A major characteristic of IoToys is that they can be personalized (or individualized) as the content of a story/game can be tailored to an individual child (Kucirkova & Flewitt, 2020). The Internet of Toys is an emerging research area, in the context of edutainment, learning, or both contexts (Heljakka & Ihamäki, 2018, 2019a; Ihamäki & Heljakka, 2019).

With regard to young children’s usage-engagement with IoToys, there is little research in informal or formal education settings (e.g., Holloway & Green, 2016; Heljakka & Ihamäki, 2018; Arnott et al., 2019; Kewalramani et al., 2020a, 2020b). Young children’s engagement with IoToys can be of potential educational value, but also includes potential risks-threats. Internet connected toys can offer new opportunities for play, learning, and educational support (Mascheroni & Holloway, 2017; Marsh, 2019) but they also raise questions about safety, security, and privacy (Chaudron et al., 2017). For example, a child can interact with a toy-robot and can receive feedback on his/her actions (the feedback/response may come from the toy or from an adult/parent), while toys may record personal information regarding the child’s personal data (name, date of birth, location etc.), and then use and share this data.

The purpose of this chapter is to discuss potential benefits-opportunities (educational value) and risks-threats associated with young children’s engagement with Internet of Toys. This discussion takes into account research findings and claims. The chapter is structured as follows. Next section presents the background (common features-characteristics of IoToys and research findings regarding their usage by young children), followed by IoToys’ potential benefits and risks. The last sections regard the conclusion and questions for future research. It is noted that although this chapter is not focused on the design of IoToys, some such studies are included, in order to describe features-characteristics of the IoToys that might be of educational value or risk.

Key Terms in this Chapter

Digital Technologies: Synonym to information and communication technologies (ICT); include desktop computers, as well as mobile technologies (tablets, etc.)

ICT (Information and Communication Technologies): Synonym to the terms “computers” and “digital technology”. Historically the focus has tended to be on computers, but this has extended to include interactive whiteboards and tablets; apart from computer software, a number of products that incorporate some aspects of ICT are available to young children (such as electronic musical keyboards, programmable interactive toys and digital cameras), while lately mobile technologies and, in particular, the tablets are very popular among young children.

Mobile Devices/Technologies: Tablets, smartphones, e-readers, MP3 players etc.; these technologies continue to expand and evolve with tablets, Chromebooks, and even laptops viewed as “mobile” devices.

Smart Toys (or Intelligent Toys): Such toys provide a technologically augmented environment for children to carry out tasks interactively, adapting to users’/children’s actions. The toys embed electronic features (e.g., sensors, microphone, camera, compass) that enable interactivity with the user. Smart toys are considered as an Internet of Things (IoT) device, while they not necessarily connected to the internet.

Digital Play: Any form of young children’s engagement and participation with software/apps (on desktop computer, tablet, iPads, mobile phones, etc.) and broadly children’s participation with different technologies or virtual worlds.

Mobile Applications: Synonym to “mobile apps” or “apps”.

Datafication: A technological trend turning many aspects of our life into data.

Internet of Toys (IoToys): Synonym to “internet-connected toys”. Such toys can be robots, teddy bears, dolls, watches, etc. and all have in common the facility to be connected to the internet. Internet-connected toys can record different types of data (while children are playing/interacting with them) such as sounds, images, movements and locality. IoToys are distinct from Smart Toys, and they are not necessarily smart. IoToys are sub-category of the internet of things.

Robotification: The process by which tasks normally performed by humans are replaced with machines of some kind. These machines could be mechanical or electronic.

Internet of Things (IoT): A system of interrelated computing devices (e.g., smart TVs, smart speakers, toys, wearables and smart appliances) that are provided with unique identifiers and the ability to transfer data over a network without requiring human-to-human or human-to-computer interaction.

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