Are AI Voice Assistants Good for Your Children?

Amazon Echo Dot on a marble surface
Grumpy Cow Studios/

AI assistants are becoming so prevalent and advanced that one day, instead of parents saying “Go ask your mother,” they’ll be saying, “Go ask Alexa.”

It must be a bit odd for a young child growing up with an AI assistant like Siri or Alexa or Cortana. There’s essentially another authority figure in your house that has no face and is never too tired to help with homework or play games. Even with parental controls, a child can’t begin to understand this humanoid robot servant that seems to both know everything and nothing at the same time.

So it’s not entirely surprising to hear that having an omnipresent robot voice around may not be ideal for children. According to a study by researchers at the University of Cambridge’s School of Clinical Medicine, AI assistants may negatively impact a kid’s cognitive and social development. There’s a shock.

Did You Say Please?

One of the concerns raised is that children may mistakenly think the way they talk to AI assistants is how you’re supposed to talk to actual humans, and so growing up with an AI assistant could turn a kid into, you know, a jerk.

“Most social etiquette that exists in conventional human–human interactions is not replicated when making requests with digital devices. For example, there is no expectation that polite terms, such as “please” or “thank you”, should be used,” the study concludes.

“There is no need to consider the tone of voice and whether the command being issued may be interpreted as rude or obnoxious.”

This is a totally valid concern. The other day I saw a kid hitting an Amazon Echo with another Amazon Echo while saying, “Why are you hitting yourself, Alexa? Why are you hitting yourself?” I was too scared to do anything.

Looking it Up

The more obvious issue is how such instant verbal access to information (ie. answers) may hinder a child’s ability to learn and absorb knowledge. It’s reminiscent of that old line in The Simpsons where Homer says, “Then we figured out we could park them in front of the TV. That’s how I was raised and I turned out TV.”

This is not a new concern, as this criticism was brought up with the advent of the internet, and clearly that whole thing’s been great for everyone, right? As the study notes, searching information teaches critical thinking and logical reasoning. An AI assistant oversimplifies this process and can never quite replicate the context that comes with asking a parent or teacher or even, God forbid, looking up something in a book.

I asked my parents all sorts of things, and that’s why I’m a fountain of knowledge when it comes to discussing how the moon is made of aged gouda or why dogs can see our dreams.

To be fair, an argument could be made that AI assistants aren’t all bad for kids. They have the potential to reduce screen time by enabling a child to interact with their voice instead of just staring at a screen, could be useful for asking quick questions instead of always pestering your parents and not getting an answer, and are obvious helps in learning a language.

But does all that outweigh the potential negative impacts and my clear bias against them? Not at all.

Here’s the issue with the Cambridge study: We sort of already knew everything in it instinctively. It’s like doing a report on the health impacts of drinking gravy or leaving marbles on stairs. A robot pretending to be a human in your home that gives instant gratification and information without any effort is probably not the greatest thing for a developing child’s mind.

But neither is television or the internet or that one babysitter who sucks. While I’d like to imagine myself as the kind of parent whose kids won’t even know that AI assistants or smartphones exist, I’ll probably have Alexa handle everything until the kid is old enough to play catch.

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