The panic over "child porn" Barbie

The FBI says the video-ready doll could be used by predators -- but a former agent tells Salon the threat is minor

Published December 3, 2010 11:35PM (EST)

An internal FBI alert about the new "Video Girl" Barbie has leaked, sparking a frenzy of speculation today about how the toy could be used by pedophiles. Cue the quotes from horrified parents and relatives who are boycotting the in-demand doll this holiday season, all in the name of protecting children from would-be pornographers (never mind that the worry is pedophiles will buy the toy themselves). But, a former FBI agent who specializes in child sex crimes, tells Salon that the danger has been overhyped. You can blame Barbie for many things -- glorifying an impossible waist-to-hip ratio, say -- but child pornography is not one of them.

"Video Girl" Barbie has a small built-in camera, a hidden LCD display screen and a USB cord that allows kids to upload videos to a computer. The concern is that a pedophile could use the doll to film sexually explicit videos of children, but Kenneth Lanning, who worked as a special agent with the FBI for more than three decades, says, "Every kind of new piece of technology begins new speculation. Thirty years ago we could have been having this discussion over the Polaroid camera and saying, 'Now you can just take these pictures and you don't have to worry about getting them developed! These guys will have a field day with this!'" New technology is adopted by all sorts of criminals -- Lanning points to Bonnie and Clyde's use of the submachine gun and high-speed automobiles to outrun cops -- but it rarely has much of anything to do with why they are criminals.

Lanning laughs at the idea that there are aspiring child pornographers without technical know-how who will see "Video Girl" Barbie and suddenly think, "Now I can do it!" Teeny tiny cameras are widely available and relatively affordable. You can put them in anything -- from a teddy bear to a smoke alarm. "Even if Mattel had never built this thing, anybody with a little bit of ingenuity could have rigged the same thing," he says, and pedophiles are not a group generally thought of as unmotivated. What's more, someone interested in producing child porn would likely sniff at the quality of the Barbie cam images, considering the more advanced technology out there.

The reality is that Barbie, along with other kid-friendly things, like candy, are already used for "grooming, seducing and lowering inhibitions." They're ways to "relate to the kid" and gain trust. (Lanning wryly notes that we haven't outlawed or boycotted candy on those grounds, now have we?) It's also the case that the most significant technological innovation in assisting pedophiles is the Internet. Having a computer with Web access in the home is a far greater danger than putting a "Video Girl" Barbie under the tree this year. Interestingly enough, Lanning says that based on the recent spate of "sexting" arrests, where teenagers are charged as child pornographers for taking naked photos of their own bodies, toys like this are more likely to get kids in legal hot water than pedophiles.

Based on the nature of my childhood play with Barbie and Ken, I'd say it's even more likely that the plastic pair will soon have their very own sex tape scandal.

By Tracy Clark-Flory

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