Are Digital Assistants Like Alexa Safe For Children?

Do you hear Alexa's voice so often it sometimes feels like you have a new family member? You're not alone. Digital assistants, also known as voice assistants, are becoming a part of daily life for many families. They are useful and entertaining, offering endless trivia and access to scores of songs and games. Often, they provide much needed respite for busy parents. Jellies creator, Ken Yarmosh, for example, uses multiple digital assistants in his home. His young children enjoy interacting with them and the Jellies app on a regular basis.

But are digital assistants actually bad for kids? We spoke to Axios and The Washington Post about some of the concerns parents have with this new technology. We then dove in to deepen our understanding of how digital assistants impact our children's social skills, emotional and cognitive development, and privacy.

Here's what we learned.

Do I Have To Be Nice? Or “Alexa, Give Me a Cookie Now!”

Before we get into the obvious question, “Will Alexa make my child bossy and rude?,” let's tackle the benefits digital assistants can have on your child's social skills.

Your family may have noticed that there's a certain way you have to communicate with digital assistants. It's difficult enough as adults to understand young children. It seems to be even more so for artificial intelligence algorithms. Alexa and other digital assistants encourage children to phrase their questions and commands a certain way, change the pitch of their voice, and enunciate their words. For example, children can't use the Amazon Echo without learning how to use a certain keyword, “Alexa,” to start an interaction. Alexa also encourages children to be quiet when another person is talking. These restrictions provide opportunities for parents to teach their children to think about the way they speak.

This is sometimes a hard lesson to learn. Since the devices don't explain what children need to do to get proper responses, children have to learn by watching others. Without those examples, it's easy for kids to become frustrated. Also, as good as these skills are to master, they don't always carry over into dealings with other people. Which can be a good thing, considering that the most obvious issue with kids and digital devices is that the devices don't discourage inappropriate ways of communicating.

That brings us to the downsides. The way they are today, digital assistants don't discourage inappropriate ways of communicating. Alexa responds to “Alexa,” not the more socially appropriate “Alexa, please...”. And it doesn't ask for a “thank you,” either. It's not uncommon for children to bark orders and scream at the devices, talk over others to get Alexa's attention, and display other rude behaviors that go uncorrected. If these interactions create a pattern of behavior used with other people, then that's a problem.

If they have a demanding, controlling approach to technology and they have unlimited access to that, then we should expect that pattern of behavior is going to carry through when they're talking with mom or dad, a grandparent, a neighbor.

- Ken Yarmosh

Is this something parents should worry about? Kaveri Subrahmanyam, a developmental psychologist and former member of Child and Family Studies at California State University, Los Angeles, is less concerned about digital assistants turning our children into bratty, little monsters. She's more worried that the other features of digital assistants -- the ones that turn on lights, shows, music, and other things -- will deter kids from doing things for themselves. Even still, “I don’t think we have to be worried about it or paranoid about it, but I do think it’s something to be watchful for,” she told Technology Review.

Jenny Radesky, developmental behavioral pediatrician at the University of Michigan, and co-author of the American Academy of Pediatrics' guidelines for media use, shares similar views.

Of course parents worry about these devices reinforcing negative behaviors, whether it's being sassy or teasing a virtual assistant. But I think there are bigger questions surrounding things like kids’ cognitive development—the way they consume information and build knowledge.

- Jenny Radesky

This brings us to...

Do Digital Assistants Teach Kids Anything? Or “Alexa, How Many Stars Are In the Sky?”

Having an endless fount of information for curious kids is one of the appeals of keeping a digital assistant in the home. After all, what family doesn't want their child to imagine exploring their world or even the space surrounding it?

This intended benefit is illustrated in one of the Amazon Echo Dot Kids Edition commercials where a young girl asks, “Alexa, how many stars are in the galaxy?” Alexa answers, “Many astronomers believe it contains at least 100 billion stars.” The girl makes an astonished noise and goes back to sticking glow-in-the-dark stars up on her bedroom wall.

The interaction ends there, without any follow-up or context. And though the scene makes you think that this girl may continue to pursue her interest in space, professionals and parenting advocates wonder if digital assistants, like Amazon's Alexa, might hinder meaningful learning rather than promote it.

“Learning happens happens when a child is challenged by a parent, by another child, a teacher—and they can argue back and forth.” That's according to Justine Cassell, developmental psychologist, director emeritus of Carnegie Mellon's Human-Computer Interaction Institute, and expert in the development of AI interfaces for children.

While Alexa might be able to answer your child's questions, there's none of the back and forth that Cassell emphasizes. What's more, the way children have to phrase their questions could discourage deeper thought and nuance. Your child may hear “Neil Armstrong” when asking "Who was the first person was to walk on the moon?." But digital assistants can't answer anything more complex. Alexa can't describe the enormous challenge of building a space shuttle, or what Armstrong felt when he hopped down off the Lunar Module. If there's no answer waiting, why even wonder.

Digital assistants teach children that they will always have access to enormous amounts of information at request. This abundance might mean that information carries less weight or significance for children as they grow older. Since it's so easily obtained, children may get in the habit of relying on Alexa over other, more thorough methods of research like visiting a library or asking people they trust. They're also not taught to conduct their own searches or question their sources for accuracy.

This may not be the case as technology improves. A 2007 Tanaka study, for example, immersed a social robot in a toddler care center for five months. By observing the interactions those toddlers had with the robot, researched concluded that technology is already close to advanced enough to bond and socialize with children over long periods of time. This level of interaction “...could have great potential in educational settings assisting teachers and enriching the classroom environment.”

The robot in this study could socially interact with the children, walk, dance, sit down, giggle, among other things. A bit different than the digital assistants we know now, but perhaps not far in our future. Digital assistants may soon reach the point where they can interact in more complex ways with children. They may be able to carry on more meaningful conversations about topics and be a benefit to young minds.

Are Robots People? Or “Hey Alexa, How Old Are You?”

Digital assistants communicate in some of the same ways humans do. They talk in human-like ways with human-like voices. They answer questions and even joke and laugh in response to what we say. So what do children think about digital assistants? Do they believe there's actually a woman named Alexa inside that small, circular device?

Here's what 4-year-old Hannah had to say about her Alexa in the Technology Review article “Growing Up with Alexa

Alexa is “a kind of robot” who lives in her house, and robots, she reasoned, aren’t people. But she does think Alexa has feelings, happy and sad. And Hannah says she would feel bad if Alexa went away. Does that mean she has to be nice to Alexa? Yes, she says, but she’s not sure why.

- Hannah

While what children think about technology seems to depend on the age and experience of the child, researchers have made a few observations:

  • Children try to interact with technology the same way they do with people. They touch and hug, talk to, play with, and attempt to take care of robots and other tech. Tanaka study.
  • Kids think of robots differently than other technology and objects. They are more likely to think that a robot has feelings or can be their friend than something obviously inanimate, like a stuffed animal. This is even true when children believe that the robot isn't alive or “real.” Kahn study.
  • The more children are able to interact with robots on an emotional and psychological level, the more they believe the robots have emotions and intent. Turkle study.

Children also tend to anthropomorphize digital assistants. That is, they assign human characteristics to objects and animals. It's as simple as referring to Alexa as a “she” rather than an “it” and characterizing digital assistants as friendly and trustworthy, as was the case with kids ages 3-10 in an MIT study. The children also asked the device questions that they would ask other people, like “Alexa, what is your favorite color,” and “Hey Alexa, how old are you?” That same study also indicated that the younger participants were more likely to test Alexa to further understand “her” and see whether “she” could do things that people can do. They asked her, for example, “Can you open doors? What are you?”

So what does this mean for your family?

Millions of parents have bought computer toys hoping they will encourage their children to practice spelling, arithmetic, and hand eye coordination. But in the hands of the child they do something else as well: they become the occasion for theorizing, for fantasizing, for thinking through metaphysically charged questions to which childhood searches for a response.

- Sherry Turkle

Digital assistants provide opportunities for children to start understanding the concept of “robot.” As children grow older, these interactions help them make further observations about the nature of technology and humanity. This skill will become more useful as technology becomes more advanced and interacts with us in different, and more human-like, ways.

Do Digital Assistants Share My Data? Or “Alexa, Can You Keep a Secret?”

It's not uncommon for new technologies to collect and share data about their child users, despite U.S. privacy laws. Digital assistants are no exception. They are privy to an unsettling amount of private information. They hear, record, and share, sometimes unexpectedly, conversations within the home.

Amazon and Google currently share some of the data collected by digital assistants. According to The New York Times, Amazon's terms of use permits it to share your information requests and zip codes, and Google says it may share transcriptions of what you say to third-party service providers.

In 2017, outcry from parenting advocates encouraged toymakers to cancel Aristotle, a kid-friendly smart device. The device, an all-in-one baby monitor and virtual assistant that came with a camera and microphone, was meant to soothe upset children and teach them fundamentals, like ABCs. Parenting advocates warned against the potential surveillance and data collection that could come with a device meant for a child's bedroom.

Privacy concerns is one of the strongest reasons to keep digital assistants out of your home. Is it enough though?

People should be more aware of the risks involved with smart home devices, especially the ones that have always-on listening status. Companies should do better to inform people of their privacy rights. And we need better laws to protect people against privacy harms. But I wouldn't say that everyone should necessarily avoid these devices. They are convenient and they can be particularly helpful for people with certain disabilities, for example.

- Tiffany Li, privacy attorney at Yale Law School’s Information Society Project.

Unfortunately, this doesn't look like a trend that's going away. Both Google and Amazon have filed patents that may increase how much information these devices can monitor and collect. Beyond recording audio files, these patents seek to analyze audio based on specific spoken words, detect a child's mischief, and determine moods and medical conditions. That data would then inform targeted advertising campaigns. Those patents are still pending.

(By the way, we don't collect or share your child's information, and Jellies meets top safety standards.)

Conclusion

Technology is all around us, playing a more significant role in our lives. While you can decide to ban digital assistants from your home, chances are your children will encounter and interact with them at some point. We believe that every family is different, and that it's important for parents to educate themselves before deciding whether to bring new technology into their homes.

Please reach out and let us know what you think about children interacting with digital assistants. We're on Twitter and Facebook. Don't forget to check out our other, in-depth safety and technology resources on the Jellies blog as well as take a look at the Jellies app itself.