Parents still grappling with kids’ app and smartphone use now have a new relationship to navigate — the bond between their kids and the all-knowing, all-hearing disembodied voice in the corner.
“Lexa,” says the blonde two-year-old in the center of the screen, staring at the glowing hockey puck-sized device on the counter.
From behind the camera, Dad helps out. “You have to turn it off the red,” he says. With one baby fat finger, the toddler presses a button and the red light disappears.
“Lexa, play ‘We We Rock You’.” A well-trained ear can guess what he wants, even though his tiny lips can’t quite maneuver around the finer syllables. The device ignores him. “Lexa,” he asks again, this time leaning in closer. “Play ‘We We We Rock You’,” No response.
“Try it one more time,” Dad says patiently. “Turn the red light off, first.”
“Lexa,” the toddler says. The device lights up purple and blue. “Play ‘We We Rock You’ “
The cool robotic voice perks up. “’We Will Rock You,’ by Queen.” Rhythmic clapping begins, and our young star turns toward the camera with a proud grin.
This adorable video and over 106,000 others like it can be found on YouTube, and they’re so cute, we could probably binge watch them all day. But as this scenario becomes more commonplace, it’s worth asking what impact could home voice assistants have on children’s development?
Media use is on the rise among kids age 0-8
Today, children across the world have access to a plethora of technological tools and interfaces. Many youngsters may know how to use a touch screen better than a keypad. Mobile phones and tablets are considered a godsend to some, who may be just trying to keep their kids entertained long enough to endure an intercontinental flight, or the waiting room at the doctor’s office.
But technology use among children is on the rise. According to the parental advocacy group Common Sense Media, in 2011, children between the ages of 0-8 averaged 16 minutes of mobile device usage per day. Six years later, kids in the same age group are using devices for three times longer – for an average of 48 minutes a day. And of those kids, 42% own their own tablet. This may come as quite a shock to those of us who remember the good old days, when having your own telephone in your room was a privilege you had to earn!
But home-based voice assistants like Alexa are opening up a new avenue for parents to navigate. Kids can call upon voice assistants to sing songs, play games, tell jokes, or even – to the chagrin of mom and dad – order expensive gifts delivered straight to their front door.
Digital nannies and raising a child in a home with a smart voice assistant?
Common Sense Media and other advocacy groups are still researching the possible consequences of raising a child in a home with a smart hub. The devices are so new, yet current estimates place a voice assistant in about one out of every 10 homes with young children.
Amazon, Google, Facebook, and other tech giants are catching onto the trend quickly. Recently, Amazon simplified the process for teens to shop online through the Echo speaker on mom and dad’s dime. Google introduced 50 new audio experiences geared towards kids, including fairy tales, games like Freeze Dance and Musical Chairs, and homework help.
But all is not well in the world of kids and technology. Amid privacy concerns, Mattel recently pulled the plug on their WiFi-enabled “digital nanny” called Aristotle. According to a petition circulated by the Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood, the device would “make sensitive information about children available to countless third parties, leaving kids and families vulnerable to marketers, hackers, and other malicious actors.” Over 10,000 people signed on, arguing that “young children shouldn’t be encouraged to form bonds and friendships with data-collecting devices.”
Facebook is under fire for its new Messenger Kids app
Even right now, Facebook is under fire for this new app, which critics say may act as a “gateway drug” to targeted advertising.
Privacy is one concern, but is there any merit to the argument that the technology is harmful to child development? “The jury’s still out,” said Pamela Hurst-Della Pietra, president and founder of Children and Screens: Institute of Digital Media and Child Development.
Aristotle’s petitioners point to the words of Mattel’s own chief product officer, Robb Fujioka, which highlight the uncertainty around this important issue. “Honestly speaking, we just don’t know,” he said. “If we’re successful, kids will form some emotional ties to this. Hopefully, it will be the right types of emotional ties.”
Parents must become aware of the consequences of AIs in the home
Common Sense Media cautions parents to carefully consider the implications of bringing AIs into their home. Smartphones and home hubs are supercomputers, not toys, and with the benefits come all the risks and dangers.
This is an important and fascinating topic. I encourage parents to browse the Family Guides for more information about kids and appropriate media use. Let me know what you think! Thaïs
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