How to stop grooming in toys? NCOSE Interview with Jake Roberson, Director of Communications for the National Center on Sexual Exploitation
Earlier this month, Hasbro pulled the Giggle and Sing Poppy Toddler doll from shelves after complaints of grooming children. I didn’t really know about it, but then I saw the video originally posted by Jamie Nelson Cornaby on Facebook and was irked to say the least. In the video, Cornaby goes over the toys advertised/mentioned features:
DreamWorks Trolls Poppy is more adorable than ever with the Giggle and Sing Poppy Toddler doll. This adorable singing doll stands over 12 inches tall from the tips of her toes to the top of her hair, giggles 3 different ways when she’s tickled, sings a fun version of the song “Trolls Just Want to Have Fun” from DreamWorks Animation’s feature film Trolls World Tour, and says 5 different phrases, too, like, “How about a hug?” and “Um, cupcake!” When you sit her down, she makes other funny sounds, too!
[via Hasbro’s Product Description]
She then reveals a disturbing completely unmentioned one. This unmentioned feature has the doll laugh and giggles when a button located on the undercarriage of the doll is pressed. You can see the reveal at about 1:30 of the video. The button placement and the sounds are very questionable, and many have accused it of grooming children.
My knowledge on the subject is pretty much non existent. I seen some questionable toys over the years, but I’ve just chalked it up to bad design. Luckily I had the opportunity to speak with Jake Roberson, the Director of Communications for the National Center on Sexual Exploitation (NCOSE). Mr. Roberson was able to ask answer my questions and provide insight on how NCOSE is working to prevent situations like this from happening.
Hello Mr. Roberson, thank you for taking the time to speak with us. I was personally unaware of the Poppy Troll issue. I’m a huge fan of Hasbro and have been an avid consumer for years and I am ashamed to admit I rarely stop to think about the implications the toys might have for children. The Poppy Troll doll issue is eye opening and I am glad that there is an organization like NCOSE to help correct it. However, bigger and more popular cases like this one aside, there are long established brands, products, and traditions that have proven to influence kids in similar, not as directly detrimental, but arguably adverse ways. And I am curious how NCOSE would handle and approach those situations.
My first question is, how do you think an issue like the Poppy Troll doll happens and do you believe that it grooms children for abuse by design?
We recognize that poor and problematic design ideas can occur in ignorance like Hasbro’s statement regarding the Poppy Troll doll noted, but we also believe it is irresponsible of those who make products for children to not have experts and processes in place to catch highly-problematic designs like this one early on. Intent is important but, regardless of intent, Hasbro and all those who make toys for children have a responsibility to provide robust quality assurance for their products and this QA must include experts on child sexual abuse so that products like this don’t make it to market in the first place.
Is this the first time NCOSE or any like organizations have called for such policies? If so, why only now? If not, what were the results?
We spend quite a bit of time on corporations who have products for children and inadequate policies and safeguards in place for keeping children safe from sexual abuse and exploitation. The tech space is a great example. Entities such as Google, Steam, and TikTok (and more) are among those who have a significant user base made up of minors and deeply insufficient policies in place for proactively protecting those children. Through both direct and grassroots advocacy work we have been able to help some of these corporations (like Google, Netflix, Instagram, and TikTok) improve their policies and products, though there is still more work and improvement to be made, and those successes have come about thanks to the hard work and perseverance of passionate allies and advocates from around the world.
While the Poppy Troll doll is abhorrent, why hasn’t there been other rallying points such as the phallic-shaped Mickey Mouse Microphone, the breast feeding Breast Milk Baby doll, balloons of popular characters that create a phallic tube to inflate, etc.?
More people are beginning to learn about and understand the pervasiveness of child sexual abuse and with increased knowledge comes increased awareness. Our hope is that more items will be scuttled early in the process and that, wherever problematic toys make it to market, that increased levels of awareness will lead to more consistent accountability for corporations from consumers.
What determines, or how does someone tell, if a toy is poorly designed or constructed versus it being designed or accused of grooming children for abuse?
It is well-known that sexual predators use toys to groom children for abuse. Any content or toy that normalizes a child touching or being touched in private areas of their body by featuring a design that encourages any such interaction is a big problem regardless of whether or not it was the product of intentional or ignorant design. Companies that create toys for kids must be called out if they produce toys such as these.
How would NCOSE increase quality control and prevent such cases better than current methods companies are using?
We believe it should and must be standard practice across the toy production industry to have robust child protection policies in place that include having experts on child sexual abuse safety on staff to provide input during the design and production process.
What is NCOSE’s stance on toys that capture sexualized features, primarily the unrealistic beauty expectations and extreme physiques that many fictional characters have?
Sexual objectification is whenever someone is treated or portrayed as primarily an object of sexual desire—a “thing,” an “accessory,” a consumable “product.” We see sexual objectification everywhere, from movies to advertisements to magazines to toys and beyond. Research shows that experiences of being sexually objectified “likely to contribute to mental health problems that disproportionately affect women (i.e., eating disorders, depression, and sexual dysfunction).”
Sexual objectification theory shows us that objectification can take place via two paths. “The first path is direct and overt and involves [sexually objectifying] experiences. The second path is indirect and subtle and involves women’s internalization of [sexual objectification] experiences or self-objectification….[women] self-objectify by treating themselves as an object to be looked at and evaluated on the basis of appearance.”
Because society validates sexualization, it sends the message that earning that validation is one of the most important goals to achieve. This is a problem in general, but especially for children if and when the media they consume and the toys they play with are constantly reinforcing that harmful message.
What about toys that have seeming unintended alternative uses, like the vibrating rocking horse in the 90’s, or the vibrating Broomstick during from Harry Potter?
It’s inevitable in life that many items can and will be used outside of their intended design/function/purpose. We recognize that such a reality is a hazard of life. It’s important to include child safety experts who understand physical, mental, and sexual development issues in the process of reviewing themes and designs to help avoid highly-problematic situations that have child sexual abuse grooming implications like in the case of the Poppy Troll doll, but we also recognize that toys will be misused even when they go through comprehensive reviews.
To this day, I still see a focus in boy targeted toys for action, violence, and hyper (arguably toxic) masculinity and traditional beauty, appearance, and motherly focus in girl targeted toys. How does NCOSE feel about toys continuing gender norms?
Objectification and the hypersexualization of both boys and girls is highly problematic and something we seek to change. We aspire to create a culture where all can thrive.
What would the NCOSE policy or approach be too long standing brands that are still popular today and reinforce those norms (like GI Joe and Barbie)?
All companies must be held to a standard that respects human dignity and rejects dehumanizing human beings as sexual objects. NCOSE has highlighted many companies that have policies which enable sexual exploitation with its annual Dirty Dozen List.
Aside from creating policies in toys, is NCOSE developing other measure for child protection, in particular high profile children who are sexualized?
Our primary work is to protect children from sexual abuse and exploitation wherever they are vulnerable to it: https://endsexualexploitation.org/childexploitation/. That can and has looked like working in and engaging with myriad contexts, but right now is heavily focused on protecting children from online exploitation: https://endsexualexploitation.org/protectingchildren/.
Lastly, what can people, particularly, parents do to help the cause and prevent such issues from occurring?
The most important and effective way to keep kids safe is always going to be proactive parental attention and involvement. That simply cannot and should not ever be replaced. In fact, proactive parental involvement is how the problematic design of the Poppy Troll doll was brought to light and a big part of why change was implemented so quickly. To help parents, we have compiled many resources related to talking with children about these issues and tools for keeping them safe in a variety of contexts: https://endsexualexploitation.org/resources-parents/
Thank you again Mr. Roberson for taking the time to speak with us and bringing attention to an overlooked issue that has major ramifications.