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Three Online Risks That Most Parents Don’t Know About

Dr. Tracy Bennett December 14, 2015


I’m snuggled into bed at our family’s mountain cabin waiting for snow with anxious anticipation of the holidays. I smile as I reminisce about each child’s favorite toys over the years. The Christmas Eve when my husband and I were up ‘til 3 am constructing an insanely complex train table, the battery-operated Jeeps that were abandoned quickly when we realized they couldn’t propel up our wildly steep driveway, the hours spent figuring out the parental controls on shiny new Apple products. In some ways I’m grateful my kids are no longer little ones. Tonight my oldest made a yummy taco dinner and the two little ones did the dishes. The days are gone where my husband and I were run ragged finding binkies and chasing toddlers. They were precious for certain, but tonight I consider the cyber challenges parents are currently facing with their kids.

As an online safety expert and clinical psychologist, I have three real concerns about this year’s holiday purchases for babies, children, and teens that parents need to know about.

  1.  I think we all recognize that overtasked parents are guiltily allowing babies too much screen time. We get it, but we don’t like it.

Consider for a moment what you think about this. I just returned from the annual Family Online Safety Institute Conference in Washington DC titled “Risks. Harms. Rewards,” and heard Dr. David Hill, Chair of the American Academy of Pediatrics Council on Communications and Media, speak about the controversial APA Screen Media Age Guidelines. Although most experts agree that it is best to discourage screen use for children under two years of age, we recognize that this is no longer realistic. The truth is, that horse is long out of the barn. Screen media toy makers have successfully targeted parents with babies and toddlers, and clinicians look on with understanding compassion but legitimate concern.


As I emphasize in my article, Should Babies Be Allowed Screen Time?, “frequent parent-child interaction is irreplaceable as a support to all types of healthy development. Parent and child brains are designed to be exquisitely responsive to each other for progressive learning. Hours of eye gazing and verbal and nonverbal encouragement is an intricate dance that builds mutual attachment and teaches the child about the responsiveness and safety of the world.” Research is demonstrating that too much screen time can result in developmental delay. The question that remains is, how much is “too much?”

To make things even more complicated, not all screen time is created equal. Interactive and educational screen time, for instance, is likely more beneficial than screen time intended for entertainment or that has elements that can be harmful for a baby or toddler’s sensitive nervous system, like hyperkinetic activity or distressing content.

But the last thing parents of little ones need is guilt. GetKidsInternetSafe is dedicated to provide quality information so they can make educated decisions, along with occasional, gentle encouragement to put down that ever-nagging screen and open their hearts to the little beings in front of them.

  1.  This year’s smart toys have me wondering about the effects on family privacy and child social development.

What the heck is “this year’s smart toys,” you wonder? I’m specifically talking about toys that have adopted similar technology as your smartphone. More specifically, toys now process feedback from children and talk back! Some even record your child’s video game strategy for each character and integrate that data into separate action figures. The action figures get smarter with cumulative play.

The Skylanders franchise is a good example of this type of toy, known as “toys-to-life.” Disney, Lego, and Nintendo have all unveiled toys-to-life this holiday season. Kids are also asking Santa for role-play toys that give mission orders directly to your child, who can then run around the house with super-hero themed armor and weapons saving the planet. Add that to improving virtual-reality headsets (goggles that you wear to encapsulate you in an entirely virtual world), and it’s evident that science fiction is no longer fiction.


Photo Attribution: Stefano Tinti /

Stephen Balkam, executive director of the Family Online Safety Institute (FOSI), challenged me recently to buy “Hello Barbie” and give my clinical opinion about her impact. Mattel’s Hello Barbie is a super smartie. She records the child’s conversation, processes it, and then answers back with one of 8,000 pre-recorded responses. Mr. Balkam elaborated that his Hello Barbie remembered their conversation days earlier when he told her he considered becoming a doctor when he was younger. She then asked him if he had considered work in the fashion industry! I was all, “Oh hellll nooo.” Not that I have anything against the fashion industry, but I fail to see how Hello Barbie is qualified to give unsolicited vocational advice to her customer, which is most likely a malleable and easy-influenced young child.

Beyond my concerns about how a toy company’s choice of conversation topic may influence a child’s development, what about family privacy? I wrote about the Samsung Smart TV in an earlier article, The Texting Dead: 14 Ways We Are More Borg than Human, and how a television that records living room family conversation for target marketing (or worse) is a real privacy concern. But now we have to add toys the list of the Internet of Things?

The Internet of Things refers to the ever-building network of things (cars, appliances, toys) that collect customer data via sensors, software, and Internet connectivity for efficiency, accuracy, and economic benefit. For instance, imagine if your car hits a pothole, then reports it to city services, who can then send a crew out real-time for repair. That kind of efficient data processing saves time and money, similar to how our email and text has connected us to friends and family. Yes, that means better targeted marketing, fewer car accidents, and more efficient urban repair, but it also means large amounts of private family data stored on servers somewhere in the cloud for easy access for lots of someones; where you go, what you buy, and maybe even who you interact with.

  1. How will the ever-expanding, permanent digital footprints of teens play out in the long term –  especially with their virtual lives increasingly being used to vet their nonvirtual lives?

Tonight my 21 year-old told me that when carded at a bar, she has occasionally been asked to show her Facebook profile as a second identification for proof of age. I was all, “What? Can they do that?” The answer is, yes they can do that. So can college administrators and future employers. In fact, recently I’ve come across an online vendor who is selling products teaching teens and their parents how to set up an impressive arsenal of social media profiles that would shine impressive and competitive for future opportunities. No longer is anonymity and personal privacy even a question online. Whether it be a cult leader, a hate group, or Mrs. Jones from the admissions department, any of us can be personality profiled with very little online detective work. Never mind those of us who have already had our personal identifying and medical data stolen in recent large scale hacks by unknown assailants.


PhotoAttribution: Twin Design /

Ho ho ho, I’m a jolly old elf, aren’t I? It’s just that the more I see in my office and the more discussions I have with really smart people in the know, the more I feel compelled to sound the alarm to parents that don’t yet know where the risks lie.

I think we need to be informed, proactive, and thoughtful when it comes to protecting our kids, our families, and ourselves from all of those that are collecting our personal data. 

I am so pleased to partner with GoGuardian for this year’s holiday tech message for thinking parents. Not only are they the premier product for schools using screen media as part of their educational curriculum, but they are all-around great people who are helping us protect our kids from the dangerous out there on the world wide web.


Learn more about how GoGuardian keeps kids safe here

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Topics: Safety

Written by Dr. Tracy Bennett

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