Is Hello Barbie eavesdropping on your kids?

Published 8:27 AM EST, Fri December 4, 2015

Story highlights

Susan Linn: Children find intimacy in the inanimate, using make-believe to express and understand life experiences

Linn: Hello Barbie allows corporations to record, analyze kids' conversations with the toy, raising a host of ethical and moral issues

Editor’s Note: Susan Linn is author of “The Case for Make Believe: Saving Play in a Commercialized World” and a psychologist at Harvard Medical School. The opinions expressed in this commentary are hers.

(CNN) —  

Imaginary play is one of childhood’s most deeply personal and important activities. Talking to and through their toys allows children the freedom to explore life, try on new roles and express their deepest hopes, fears and dreams. The precious, private space that children inhabit when they play is no place for corporate marketers and eavesdroppers.

That’s why Mattel’s Wi-Fi connected Hello Barbie is so troubling. The doll will capture what children say in play, beam it to the cloud, and give personalized responses – something like talking to Siri, the “intelligent assistant” on Apple phones. Mattel representatives say that by recording and analyzing children’s play, Hello Barbie will help them learn what children like and dislike, and then push data back at kids.

Susan Linn
Courtesy Susan Linn
Susan Linn
AP Photomark Lennihan

I’m a psychologist and a longtime advocate for limiting commercializing of children’s play. The true value of playing with dolls, stuffed animals or and any inanimate or imaginary creatures is that it is children who bring them to life, who imbue them with distinct personalities, and transform them as needed into friends, adversaries, champions and more. The silence of make-believe playthings is their most important attribute.

No two children play exactly the same way. One child I played with after his dental appointment transformed a dog puppet into a dentist. Another, facing open heart surgery, transformed the same puppet into a surgeon. Another pretended it was a mother picking her daughter up at day care, a stark contrast to the child who created another “mother” who passively watched as her daughter drowned. Then there was the little girl who used the puppet to express her take on a family dilemma. “My heart is Jewish,” she said, “but the rest of my body is Christmas.”