Whereas prior generations of tech-enabled toys long kept the conversation between a child and her toy (from Chatty Cathy in the 1950s to Teddy Ruxpin in the 1980s), new incarnations have extended that conversation to outsiders beyond a child’s playroom. The UK press reported earlier this year that 2014’s app-enabled My Friend Cayla doll could be accessed and reprogrammed by unauthorized third parties. The doll’s manufacturer (Vivid Toys and Games) reportedly responded that it can readily deal with such issues as it is “able to adapt and upgrade the app on an ongoing basis” – in effect, another avenue for accessing and reprogramming the doll from beyond the playroom.
The challenge for parents is not so much toy manufacturers’ focus on making security a priority (since all manufacturers claim to do so), but rather (i) weeding out manufacturers that are not effective in achieving that goal (often difficult, except in hindsight) or (ii) identifying companies that insert themselves into conversations with a child (or gather information about that child) unnecessarily or beyond the control of parents.
There is an important, long-running discussion about technology’s impact on child learning and social development. While that debate continues, parents need tools today to use responsibly in helping their children grow – tools that foster a child’s sense of identity, create bonding opportunities, and extend a parent’s (or grandparent’s) ability to interact with a child.
In pursuit of those solutions, it can be helpful to consider new developments in light of existing tools that are familiar to a parent. For example, Geoffrey Fowler writing in the Wall Street Journal described Hello Barbie as “Apple’s [virtual assistant] Siri trapped inside the body of a doll”. My Friend Cayla has been described as “a Bluetooth headset dressed as a doll”.
Once a parent focuses on basic functionality - e.g., identifying that a wifi-enabled doll allows two-way communication in real time with an unidentified person (or identified, but faceless company), the threshold question can reduce to something as simple as “Do I normally allow my  year old to talk to strangers on the telephone (when I am out of the room, no less)?”
Keeping confident (and sometimes simply persevering) makes it easier to apply common sense in cutting through the occasional dazzle of new technology.
Lastly, there is an important distinction between using technology to enrich a young person's life and giving a child the (unsupervised) keys to that same technology. It never ceases to amaze where a child can end up when the mix includes YouTube access and a briefly distracted parent. In this sense, using technology to help educate a child and nurture her growth is no different than using a car – as long as a parent remembers that driving is not the same as riding.