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Hello Barbie Is Creepy, But Not Because She Talks

Barbie has been one of America's most loved dolls since she joined the toy market in 1959, and she has seen many changes folks have been reluctant to embrace over the years. So she's no stranger to controversy.

The latest version of the svelte blonde has definitely sparked debate.

Mattel unveiled Hello Barbie at Toy Fair 2015 last month. This new modern Barbie requires a Wi-Fi connection and comes equipped with a speaker, a microphone and two multi-color LEDs. She also has rechargeable batteries in her legs.

Hello Barbie uses ToyTalk speech recognition technology to engage in "real" conversations with your child. Barbie has spoken before, but this time children will feel like Barbie responds in real time (as opposed to a few phrases on repeat). Using a hold-to-talk button, kids decide when they want Barbie to respond.

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"The most requested thing that kids have wanted to do with Barbie—and Mattel's done unbelievable amounts of research over the course of decades—is to talk to Barbie," explained ToyTalk CEO Oren Jacob in a statement to Fast Company.

It seems Mattel set out to respond the dreams of little kids everywhere.

So what's the controversy surrounding this new high-tech Barbie? It all comes down to that little microphone. ToyTalk writers are busy creating dialogue based on what they think kids will say to Barbie, but the microphone enables them to collect data and store responses in the cloud (similar to Siri) to reference in future dialogue. In short, the people writing Barbie's dialogue can listen in when your children play (if the talk button is engaged).

While the goal of the data collection is to find out what really interests kids and create a talking toy that actually responds to the kids, some have concerns that Hello Barbie is a security risk for kids. The Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood launched a petition Wednesday asking Mattel to scrap the doll. Concerned that the doll leaves kids vulnerable to stealth advertising and potentially disrupts meaningful play, they aim to stop the doll before she even hits the shelves in the fall.

Is Hello Barbie a cool new high-tech toy for kids or totally creepy?

As an advocate for play, I tend to caution against too many talking, noise-making, does-the-play-for-you kinds of toys. I love watching my son make the car noises when his matchbox cars line up for the latest something-500 in the family room. I enjoy the chatter that floats through the air when my kids play animal school, cars or some Playmobil together.

They merge ideas and bring all kinds of toys together to play. That, right there, is the essence of free play. Free play is essential for children—it's what helps them learn, thrive and grow. Free play puts the child in childhood.

Would my 8-year-old daughter enjoy hearing Barbie respond to her? Perhaps for a few days. But then it would get old. For my daughter, who is never short on big ideas, prerecorded responses become tiresome. Would I worry about her "conversations" being stored in the cloud? Why even open that door?

To be honest, this toy would never enter our home. With a hefty price tag of $74.99, it just doesn't make sense. While the coolness factor of a "conversation doll" might intrigue many, I don't see the value of toys that stunt creativity.

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Mattel does a lot of great things in my community, particularly with our schools, and I have a hard time believing that they spent years on research and development for the purpose of stealth advertising and eavesdropping. I do, however, see both sides of the debate. In the end, it comes down to making the best choice for your family.

Kids deserve privacy in their play. If you choose to make Hello Barbie a member of your toy family, talk about the technology with your kids. Make sure that they understand how the doll works and what happens when you hold that talk button. You wouldn't send your child into the great abyss that is the Internet without a conversation about online safety first, would you? Treat Hello Barbie like you would any other piece of technology. Discuss the benefits, risks and limits, and go from there.

Image via Time

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