In a popular song Paul Simon tells us that "these are the days of miracle and wonder." Surely this is so for the lucky child faced with a cornucopia of computer and other electronic toys this holiday season. But among the games and educational tools is one category that should give us pause: spy toys.
In one catalogue, under the heading "Toys to Grow On," for $19.95 you can have Super Ears, which "help you detect even the slightest sounds! Slip on the headset and aim the dish; even if your target is far away, you'll hear every rustle, every footstep, every breath, every word!" Another stethoscope-like device permits you to hear "quiet breathing, through a concrete wall a foot thick" and with "fidelity good enough to record." And for only a few dollars, stockings can be stuffed with a Dyna-Mike Transmitter; smaller than a quarter, it "will transmit every sound in a room to an FM radio tuned to the proper frequency" up to two miles away. Consider, too, the possibilities of voice-activated miniature tape recorders that can be slipped into a pocket, a drawer or under the bed.
In the wonderful world of advertising, eavesdropping is defined as a game and spying on others is portrayed as fun and exciting. Sellers argue that such toys are also educational in introducing children to the mysteries of sound, hearing and electricity, not to mention the practical skills being developed.
In addition to listening to sounds in the woods and to playmates, older brothers and sisters and even mommy and daddy can be secretly spied on. Imagine the fun! Think of the implications for the family power structure. Children are now offered technical means of watching their parents, as well as the reverse. Children's rights take on new meaning. As an added benefit, adults may behave better at home, both because they want to set a good example for curious children and because they fear being turned in by them.
And it is fun to spy on other people. Such "toys" directly feed childhood fantasies of omnipotence. While not the same as being Superman and able to fly, it is magical to be able to overhear conversations through a wall or from several hundred yards away, or to secretly capture sound and play it back.
But it can also be wrong. To encourage children to play at such activities without at the same time instructing them in the immorality of invasive information technology is irresponsible.
Defenders of toy guns argue that their products are just make-believe and are harmless because they don't really work. Children can indulge their violent or protective fantasies without doing any immediate harm or confusing their game with reality. But this is not the case with many of the surveillance devices. They are attractive because they really do work. Children are no longer required even to pretend or to fantasize.
In becoming accustomed to such toys and the pleasures they bring, the seeds of an amoral and suspicious adulthood are unwittingly being cultivated.
There are parallels to computer hackers. How many of the growing number of young computer criminals have simply carried over into their adult life a juvenile game view of computer hacking, in which morality is irrelevant and all that matters is the technical challenge? Will private bugging, wiretapping and video surveillance expand as a generation matures having had these devices as childhood toys?
Children are also learning about the world of surveillance from the many child-monitoring devices marketed for parents: transmitters clipped to a child's clothing or put into a shoe that trigger an alarm on a parental monitor if the child strays out of the signal-range area; wide-area room-scanning by remote video; audio devices in children's bedrooms; at-home urine tests for drugs. What must the world look like to the child subjected to these devices and simultaneously also given spy toys to play with?
At holiday time in a free-market economy, it is probably subversive or worse to suggest that toys be banned on the basis of the bad moral message that they send, rather than on the basis of the physical damage that they can do. Yet in the long run the latter may even be more costly because it is insidious and its effects subtle and long-lasting.
One would hope that parents would favor toys that build trust and cooperation, or that are at least neutral in the moral lessons that they bring, rather than those that encourage spying and deception. Children's and consumer advocacy groups might add surveillance toys to their opposition to toys of violence. At a minimum there should be warning labels on such listening devices indicating that their use in certain ways is illegal. The toys should also come with guidelines for appropriate use and instructional materials to help parents discuss with children the moral issues around surreptitious listening and recording.
In his novel "It Can't Happen Here," Sinclair Lewis warned that if liberty ever were undermined in the United States, it would be from within and would occur gradually, even benignly. He didn't have such toys in mind, but they nicely illustrate his point.