Barbie manufacturer Mattel is being accused of “stealth marketing” to children via a program that donates dolls to schools to promote social skills—a program some experts say could do more harm than good.
That’s according to an investigative piece published today in The British Medical Journal, which highlights critics’ concerns about the program.
The “Barbie School of Friendship,” launched this year, provides a set of 12 dolls and branded lesson plans, certificates, stickers, a poster, and other educational and promotional items to 700 U.K. schools. The program has the potential to reach more than 150,000 students, according to The BMJ, citing Mattel.
The program aims to teach social skills like empathy, problem-solving, compromising, and conflict resolution, according to a February article in an industry publication.
One teacher at Lord Blyton Primary School in English county Tyne and Wear—one site where the program is used—told BMJ that the materials were welcome “given the current lack of funding in schools.”
“We are in a relatively socially deprived area, and many of our children don’t get the opportunity to engage in speaking and listening activities about subjects such as these,” she told the publication.
The school’s website features a blog entry on the program that shows materials Mattel sent, including multiple dolls in wheelchairs, and dolls with a variety of skin tones and hair textures.
But experts warn of possible negative side effects of the program, like gender stereotyping, and say that company-funded research used to justify the “Barbie School of Friendship” over-sells it to educators and parents alike.
“Commercial entities like Mattel are not experts in children’s health or education,” Mark Pettricrew, public health evaluation professor at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, told BMJ. He called the program “alarming.”
“The Mattel materials are heavily branded—why should children be exposed to this type of stealth marketing?”
Research promoting the program, funded by Mattel and completed at Cardiff University in Wales, found higher brain activity in children who played with Barbie and other Mattel dolls than those who played games on tablets or computers.
But that benefit only occurred when children were playing alone, Franziska Krob, a psychologist at Dresden University of Technology in Germany, told the publication—and it disappeared when adults entered the mix.
While the program may be based on the research, the curriculum itself is not, Sarah Gerson, a senior lecturer at Cardiff University and a senior author on both Mattel-sponsored studies, told BMJ. She said that there was “moral ambiguity” about the program.
“It’s a tricky one, for sure,” she told the publication.
In response to program criticism, a Mattel spokesperson reportedly sent the publication anonymous testimonials from teachers praising student engagement the program created, as well as the diversity of body types, skin tones, and disabilities represented by the dolls.
The underfunding of education means schools must look to commercial companies to supplement lesson planning. The company may expand the program to other markets, the spokesperson added.
Fortune reached out to the company for a response, and had not received a response as of press time.