Hello, Future: How Voice Assistants Are Changing Children & Childhood

Mama. Dada. Alexa. Google.

These are some of the first words a child hears today. Whether you call it a voice assistant (VA), a smart speaker (SS), or what it really is – artificial intelligence (AI), the truth is voice technology is changing both children and childhood.

With the global smart speaker market estimated to grow to US$20 billion by 2024, families have two main voice options in Amazon (via Alexa and its Echo product line) and Google (via its Google Assistant and Google Home product line). I’m still surprised that Apple (with its VA Siri and its line of iPhones, iPads and HomePods) is not a player here.

Amazon is by far the market leader with about 70% share, and they were both early and savvy to launch a family-friendly Echo Dot Kids Edition back in 2018. While facing the inevitable privacy concerns, Amazon’s Echo Dot Kids product line has continued to develop features to set parents at ease including not accessing or collecting children’s personal information as well as having parental controls to set time limits and restrict content access (more on privacy in a bit).

We’ve seen countless movies show a tech-enabled future, but the line between intelligent machines and human beings is narrowing every day as voice assistants make their way into every aspect of our lives. While it brings convenience to adults, what is the impact of voice technology on children? It’s too early to tell, but we’re seeing some areas where it’s changing how kids think and behave.

Welcome To The Family, Alexa!

Voice is already one of the most transformational technologies for Generation Alpha. They are the first generation of kids to grow up with voice assistants and the majority of them will not know a life without them. Given the naturally inquisitive nature of kids, interactive VAs are both exciting and fun. For example, there’s an incredible variety of things to ask Alexa ranging from “Alexa, how high can you count?” and “Alexa, can you spell “supercalifragilisticexpialidocious?” to “Alexa, tell me a dinosaur joke” and “Alexa, rap for me.”

According to a 2019 Common Sense Media study, most kids talk to smart speakers daily. More than 40% of parents with kids ages two to eight say their families use a VA and nearly 60% say their young children interact with a voice-activated assistant. The most popular activities for kids are playing music, answering questions and telling jokes. Some use VAs to set alarms for when to wake up or when they have a class. And with a majority of kids learning to speak before they can spell, write or type, voice is quickly becoming the first form of media most of them will interact with. For some parents, Alexa has become their “digital nanny“. For some kids, they’d rather ask Alexa for presents than Santa! It’s only a matter of time before kids think of your smart speaker as just another family member.

As the pandemic continues, voice technology offers an interesting addition to the kids “learning at home” repertoire. As parents accept that screens have won the screen-time debate, voice is proving to be a useful, non-screen based way for kids to learn and even help out with homework. Another report by Common Sense Media showcases the many ways kids can use voice technology for literacy and numeracy skills including spelling, sounding-out words, reading books aloud, counting, basic math functions, and more. In addition, voice is far more accessible than traditional forms of media which is a huge boon to for kids with learning difficulties such as dyslexia or even sight issues.

A Virtual Friend or Foe?

With so much voice interaction, it’s no surprise that Alexa and Google are becoming some of the first “friends” kids have. Everyone can relate to kids having an imaginary friend, whether it’s their favorite stuffed animal, toy or a character of their own creation. Play is a key part of child development and these play relationships are critical to developing social-emotional skills.

However, what’s exactly going on through a child’s mind? These virtual friends with seemingly limitless knowledge are making real-world impressions on kids. A researcher at MIT’s Media Lab Jacqueline Kory Westland writes that kids often treat robots “like a friend,” showing affection and sharing stories. Not surprisingly, the more “relational” a robot was, the more kids engaged with and learned from it. “They were more likely to say that playing with the robot was like playing with another child,” she writes. “They also were more confident that the robot remembered them, frequently referencing relational behaviors to explain their confidence.”

Still, there can be a downside with a child having such control over a voice assistant. How does one teach respect, kindness and other social-emotional skills with AI? There’s a concern brewing that kids are growing up constantly giving voice assistants orders and this may lead to callous and impolite behavior toward real people. Machines don’t have feelings, so how will a kid know if he or she was rude and disrepectful?

Privacy In An Always-On World

As everything gets increasingly digitized and connected, one of the trade-offs is having our devices be “always-on”. For many Internet-enabled apps and services to work, they increasingly need access to your personal information such as your name, location, and interests. This value exchange is already controversial for adults, but when you bring the intimacy of both your kids and home into the equation it gets really complicated.

For voice technology to work, you need your Amazon Alexa or Google Assistant to always be on and waiting to come alive when you utter the “Alexa,” or “Hey, Google” wake words. As a result, parents are increasingly concerned about technology recording their kids or about someone hacking their smart speakers and listening in to their conversations. As noted in another Common Sense Media study, almost all parents worry about the devices’ privacy settings and what can happen to the data that is being collected. The trade-off is a real dilemma as kids and parents alike are increasingly reliant on voice assistants. This is too big of a topic to address here, so I’ll do a deeper dive into privacy issues for Generation Alpha in a future newsletter for sure.

Hello, Future!

No matter what we may think of voice assistants, it is clear this is going to be an incredibly important technology that will shape the kids of Generation Alpha for decades to come. It’s hard to believe but it’s still the early days of voice. As the cloud-based AI technology that powers Amazon’s Alexa and Google’s Assistant will get even more data once 5G and IoT takes off, voice will experience both exponential improvements and exciting new product innovations and integrations. It’s only a matter of time before kids will have voice technology integrated into everything in their lives from toys and education to their kitchens and bedrooms. Let’s just hope kids will still want mama and dada to tell them a bedtime story.

Forever young,

Steven

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