As a little girl, I pretended GI Joe liked She-Ra, and they hung out with Barbie and My Little Pony, too.
I built Lego furniture for them. We talked. In my room, among my toys, I imagined a world of my own. And as queen of that land, I could say what I wanted. If my mama made me mad, I could whisper my anger to them. I could vent. I could tell secrets. I could make-believe we were going to run the world and make all of our dreams come true.
They didn’t need to talk back, because I used my imagination to construct the conversations.
But now Mattel wants to take creative expression away for today’s children. At a New York convention last month, the toy giant unveiled Hello Barbie. And she’s haunted by Siri.
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Press Barbie’s belt buckle and talk into her necklace, and she chats right back. Thanks to voice recognition software, a WiFi connection and a cloud where the conversations are stored, Barbie knows how to respond.
ToyTalk, a California company dedicated to chatty children’s toys, collaborated with Mattel. The company’s writers will study the conversations to help formulate responses and topics. Big Brother Barbie, much?
The backlash has been brutal. Parents and the advocacy group Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood don’t want this $75 doll to make it to shelves this fall. A petition has already gained nearly 6,000 signatures. They call it Eavesdropping Barbie. No one wants a big corporation having access to children and using their innermost thoughts to advertise to them. What about hackers? And can parents trust Hello Barbie to say the right thing?
At the toy fair, a demo showed a saleswoman chatting with Barbie about New York City:
“I love New York, don’t you?” Barbie asked. “Tell me, what’s your favorite part about the city?” The woman said she likes the Italian food. Barbie responded, “I’ve never eaten it before. You have to take me to try it!”
What if a little girl decides all she needs is her talking Barbie? Forget human interaction. She can just find a way to take Hello Barbie to her favorite Italian restaurant, sans adults. Is Hello Barbie going to remind her to ask her parents? The possibilities for disaster seem endless.
“While I can admire the technology, I think it’s disturbing,” said Laura Eickman, an Overland Park clinical psychologist who specializes in adolescent self-esteem. “The children aren’t really just talking to their dolls, they’re talking to an entire company. That data is stored, and I imagine it would be fairly easy for it to be used in manipulative ways — to influence children’s requests for certain toys and products, for example. I also would be concerned about what happens if children say inappropriate or unhealthy things to the Barbie. What does the Barbie say back?”
Naturally, Mattel says parents shouldn’t worry. The doll complies with the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act. Safeguards prevent inappropriate conversations. Mattel and ToyTalk say the conversations are used only to improve Hello Barbie. Parents will be in control of the data and have access to the conversations. They can even get daily emails.
Wait a minute. Daily emails? Hey, kids, not only is a corporate giant spying on you, but now your parents get to listen to your secrets, too. I’m glad my mama never heard some of things I told my Barbie. Now you have Mattel listening, tattling and telling.
For decades, toy makers have been adding audio and action, but Stevanne Auerbach, aka Dr. Toy, said companies often get it wrong. As the author of “Dr. Toy’s Smart Play Smart Toys: How to Raise a Child With a High PQ (play quotient),” she studies toys and play patterns.
“The so-called improvements and innovations are really an attempt to change basic play patterns, and interference is not in the best interest of the child’s development,” she told me. “Barbie or any doll should be used powered by the child’s imagination with their own natural responses, and not artificially simulated by any device. Dolls provide the child with an essential chance to communicate at their own level, experience emotions and express their own creativity, and not be programmed by technology that does not guarantee that it provides solid value.”
Mattel says it’s just giving little girls what they always wanted: to talk to Barbie. But the company doesn’t get it. When we talked to Barbie, we didn’t need her voice. We used our own creativity. We authored our own story lines. Pretending pushed us to be innovative. Without innovation, we’re all a bunch of robots.
Hello Barbie looks like a fun girl, but really, she’s a super spy. Mattel is listening. Your parents are checking the files. And Barbie, well she is commander of the entire conversation. Goodbye, imagination.