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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.