I admit, I missed all the releases from the Toy Fair in Spring this year. I usually keep up a bit better because I love technology and it’s awesome, but yea. So it wasn’t until I saw the article in the NY Times Magazine about Hello Barbie entitled Barbie Wants to Get to Know Your Child that I knew about the new AI Barbie coming to stores this holiday season.
The article does a good job of bringing up negatives of the doll, including children believing that she’s entirely real, that the doll could redefine how girls see themselves, that she may become their only friend, as well as positives, including that it was an original idea from a former Pixar employee, that there is a team of computer programmers writing thousands of lines of code to make Barbie realistic and responsive to kids, and that Mattel is actively working to make sure that she’s smart, intelligent and upbeat without being saccharine.
However, there are a lot of things that the article doesn’t touch upon as well. In my opinion, one of the biggest things that the article missed was privacy and usage of the conversations that Barbie is keeping.
ToyTalk, the AI company that has partnered with Mattel, has put together a number of award-winning apps for kids, including Thomas and Friends Talk to You, The Winston Show, and SpeakaZoo. They make a point of making sure you as an adult know that their applications are COPPA Certified Kid Safe+ (FTC Safe Harbor) and that parents have to sign the privacy notices before kids can use the apps and talk to the characters. All of that will be included with Hello Barbie as well.
I don’t have a kid (nieces and nephews yes, kids no) so I don’t have those apps anywhere, but I have parents of kids who do. When asked, they said, “yeah, I agreed to the policy.” When asked if they knew that the conversations were being used elsewhere, they didn’t know. “Oh, I didn’t READ it, I just agreed because they said I could delete anything that I didn’t want kept.” It’s like the agreement for the computer upgrade or your mp3 player upgrade- you click OK because really, what’s the big deal? (BTW, and excellent YA novel coming out in November showing exactly what the deal is and the ramifications is NEED by Joelle Charbonneau, which has been optioned before publication by Merced Media).
But read through the policy for a second. Not only are the conversations of the kids recorded and analyzed, they’re distributed to third parties for other uses. Sanitized or not, the conversations of kids really don’t need to be shared anywhere. What are they being used for? And nowhere in there do they cover conversations with OTHER kids- which you know is going to happen as soon as Hello Barbie comes out of the box. She’s going to school, she’s going to the library, she’s going to sleepovers, and none of the privacy policies cover ANY recordings of ANY kid other than the one that owns Barbie. How do you handle that?
And what do tweens do about their own privacy? In the article, they mention that Hello Barbie is programmed to handle difficult subjects carefully, referring the child to talk to an adult and treading on tiptoes. Yet there are times when a tween just wants to talk to someone other than their parents, and if Hello Barbie has become that “ear” instead of their teddy to whom they spill their secrets, then there may be another problem. According to ToyTalk’s parent privacy policies:
What controls do parents have over account information and content?
Parents have full control over all account information and content in their child’s account . Parents may review and delete any audio files in their account and may also permanently delete their accounts via the Settings page on ToyTalk’s website.
Anything a tween tells Barbie is NOT private, and unless they get online and research, they’re not going to know that their new bestie is in fact big brother, spilling secrets over the WiFi. Your first kiss? Your first crush?
All well and good but what happens when a tween desperately needs privacy for something? What if a parent is abusive? When is too far too far?
And what is going to happen when all of this streaming information is hacked? It’s going over the family home WiFi (or the public library or anyone else’s WiFi unless she’s locked down to a specific IP address), and if the network is unsecured, that stream is open for anyone. I don’t know why someone would mess with it in the first place, but tweens and teens can be nasty- and a recording of your deepest secrets can be the worst fodder around.
This just scratches the surface of the parent privacy aspects. It doesn’t touch what ToyTalk or the third parties do with the conversations.
It doesn’t touch the fact that Barbie is problematic in the first place. Or that there’s no mention of any POC Barbies coming out.
It doesn’t even BEGIN to talk about the fact that Julia Pistor, a Mattel VP, is quoted as saying:
‘‘The subtext that is there that we would not do for boys is: ‘You don’t have to be perfect. It is O.K. to be messy and flawed and silly.’ ’’
which implies that they wouldn’t do the same message for boys. Of any sexuality. Or trans kids.
It doesn’t begin to talk about the fact that there are already judgement values in the code just based on the code writers, as demonstrated by this passage:
Barbie would be able to ask kids what music they liked, for instance, and was ready for nearly 200 possible responses. Taylor Swift? ‘‘She is one of my super favorites right now!’’ Barbie would reply. My Bloody Valentine? ‘‘They are so emo.’’
Emo? Just 200 responses for music? Which ones did they pick? How did they pick them?
There’s just too much that’s off with Hello Barbie to be comfortable with, and she just needs a solid goodbye.