Leona O'Neill

Leona O'Neill has been a journalist in Northern Ireland for over 20 years working with, among others, the Belfast Telegraph, Sunday Life, Daily Mirror and the Irish News. She is also a news reporter on Q Radio, a weekly columnist with the Irish News and a commentator for the BBC. She is a mother of four children - two of them teenagers - and as such is also a full-time professional worrier.

The tree is up, the stockings are pinned to the fireplace, the lights are twinkling and the smell of chestnuts and cinnamon hangs heavy in the air. This means only one thing, that Santa is most definitely on his way.

Kids across the land are writing up their Christmas lists and chief amongst the gifts that the elves will be fashioning in the North Pole workshops will be all manner of technical toys and devices.

Many parents back home will also be thinking about festive purchases. And in this modern era, many of those toys will be interactive and digital.

It has become the norm that many toys on the market incorporate digital technology, allowing children to play with them using the internet, to ask questions and have them answered, to hold conversations, to take pictures and to send messages.

Digital toys susceptible to being hacked

Technology is indeed a great thing, which has added a whole new dimension to our children’s play time. But just like any of our online devices, our children’s interactive toys are also susceptible to online hackers. Online worlds are at times treacherous waters to navigate and it is best to come armed with knowledge so you don’t get caught out.

Anything connected to the internet can help people gather information about your child, their likes and habits can ultimately target you with advertising, and indeed use that information for malicious reasons.

A connected toy is not infallible. It is, in reality, a computer. If hacked, details such as your child’s name, address, phone number and GPS data could pinpoint their physical location as well as leaving them open to identify theft.

Last year German telecommunications watchdog bosses banned a hugely popular interactive talking doll over fears its technology could be exploited by hackers to target children.

They advised parents who have already bought the Cayla dolls to destroy them.

The doll, which interacts with children and can answer their questions, much like Siri or Alexa, connects to the internet and uses Google searches and voice recognition to provide answers to questions.

But the watchdog found that the doll used an unsecured Bluetooth device that could easily be exploited by criminals to target children.

And equally as horrifying, there have been incidents in the past were parents using baby monitors connected to WiFi found that strangers could view live videos of their child’s bedrooms because there was no security implemented on them whatsoever.

Last year the FBI in America put out a warning to parents just before Christmas. They encouraged consumers to “consider cyber security prior to introducing smart, interactive, internet-connected toys into their homes or trusted environments”.

They highlighted that many hi-tech toys carry microphones and cameras that could be listening to things beyond child chatter. So that interactive Teddy sitting innocently and quietly on your living room sofa could in fact be transmitting data to a remote server.

That is not true of all devices, but as parents, we should be making sure whoever is handling this data has the proper security and privacy safeguards in place.

Experts say we should be cautious if our child’s toy can connect directly to the internet via Wifi, or connects via Bluetooth. We should be wary if the toy has speakers, a microphone, a recording device, cameras, wireless transmitters or receivers.

We should also be mindful if the toy has speech recognition and GPS capability or connects to a mobile app. And parents should be very wary of requests for name, address, date of birth and any other personal information when you register or anything that stores your data internally or sends it to partners.

How can we protect ourselves?

It’s hard to escape technology these days, particularly with regards the younger generation who are completely immersed in it. But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t protect ourselves.

Only connect and use toys and games in environments with trusted WiFi connections.

Always monitor your child’s activity with the toys. Have a look at their voice recordings, pictures and conversations if you can and carefully read all disclosure and privacy policies that come with the toy.

And if you’re neurotic, like me, make sure and turn the toy off when it’s not being used, particularly if it has a camera or microphone on it.What you don’t need is Big Brother, Big Ted or Big Interactive Unicorn watching you in your home.

And above all else, go with your gut. If something seems not right, then it probably isn’t.