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What are the effects of voice assistants on children?

Effects of voice assistants (1)

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Published on 28/09/2022

The chances are that you have some kind of voice-activated AI in your home. It could be Siri on your phone, an Amazon Alexa device or maybe Google Home, but have you thought about how your kids interact with them? Scientists have looked into the effects of voice assistants on children and it’s a mixed bag, to be honest.

The positive effects of voice assistants

Researchers found positive effects of voice assistants in the way in which they act as reading companions to improve reading skills. In addition, some kids have voice AIs as conversation “partners”, helping them improve their communication skills by challenging their verbal mistakes.

In addition, they reduce screen time. Rather than staring at a device all day, kids can play and discover by talking to and listening to their assistant. They also nurture that natural curiosity that children have. You know, like when they ask you 15,000 questions before you’ve even drunk your first cup of tea of the day. Well, send them over to Alexa and let her deal with them. That’s literally your voice assistant’s job.

The negatives

However, researchers have warned that “voice-controlled smart devices could have “long-term consequences on empathy, compassion and critical thinking” among children. As a result, they have called for more studies to examine the impact on youngsters.

They found that the artificial intelligence driving the devices, coupled with the human-sounding voices, have attracted concerns about how they “may negatively affect children’s cognitive and social development”.

In a new opinion piece, published in the journal Archives of Disease in Childhood, academics said the concerns on the impacts of children include “inappropriate responses”. They also mentioned the risks of “impeding social development” and “hindering learning opportunities”.

Effects of voice assistants (1)

One of the problems is that kids attribute human characteristics and behaviour to the devices, which is compounded by some of the language used to turn on the devices. There is not an automatic expectation for children using the devices to say please or thank you, nor any consideration to tone of voice by the user.

Researchers said “the lack of ability to engage in non-verbal communication makes use of the devices a poor method of learning social interaction.” But they highlight the “magic word” function on Alexa. It uses positive reinforcement for polite manners, which they commented was an “important step in the right direction”.

Another concern was that receiving instant answers to questions could “hinder traditional processes by which children learn and absorb information”. They said the process of searching for information is an “important learning experience” which teaches critical thinking and logical reasoning. But they said this concern is not new as people raised similar issues when the internet and search engines became widely available.

Safety and privacy issues

In addition to these effects of voice assistants, the researchers also highlighted some of the inappropriate responses given to children, including a device “suggesting that a 10-year-old girl should try touching a live plug with a coin”. They also raise concerns over privacy issues. These included “an episode in which a device inadvertently recorded a private conversation and emailed it to a random phone contact”.

“The rise of voice devices has provided great benefit to the population,” they wrote. “Their abilities to provide information rapidly, assist with daily activities and act as a social companion to lonely adults are both important and useful. However, urgent research is required into the long-term consequences for children interacting with such devices.”

Effects of voice assistants (1)

Response

Amazon responded to the report, saying, “Many of our customers have told us that Amazon Kids on Alexa, Echo Dot Kids and Kids Skills are helping their children, including those with autism and ADHD.

“Our Amazon Kids service on Alexa provides parental controls which help parents manage the ways their children interact with technology and serves age-appropriate content.

“We also offer polite mode which encourages children to say ‘please’ and ‘thank you’ when speaking to Alexa. We believe voice technology will be a big part of the future and our goal is to provide an educational experience for kids combined with controls that give parents peace of mind.”

 

Have you noticed any effects of voice assistants on your kids? Leave a Comment below and tell us about them

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