Voice-control assistant devices such as Google Home, Amazon’s Alexa, and Apple’s Siri are increasingly common in homes. A survey from 2020 found that over 40% of families with kids under 8 years old have a smart speaker. There are benefits to this technology for kids and families. However, researchers also warn of the potential effects of voice-assisted technology on kids’ social and emotional development. Being aware of the possible risks can help parents guide their children’s technology use.
Researchers warn of the potential long-term effects of voice control devices on children’s social and emotional health, but say more research is needed.
There is evidence that shows voice control devices can be beneficial for kids and families.
Each family chooses to use technology differently, and there are ways to help kids use smart speakers safely.
Researchers voice concerns about smart devices
The authors of a recent opinion article in the journal Archives of Disease in Childhood raise concerns that “Interacting with the devices at a crucial stage in social and emotional development might have long-term consequences on empathy, compassion, and critical thinking.” Researchers describe three concerns about the interaction between children and smart speakers:
First, they reference events when a smart speaker has responded inappropriately to children, such as suggesting dangerous behavior or accidentally recording a conversation.
Second, researchers say smart speakers could disrupt kids’ social development because children tend to interact with the devices emotionally, believing the devices have rights and feelings even though they know the speakers are machines. They also point out that engaging with smart speakers does not encourage non-verbal communication, and that, “there is no expectation that polite terms, such as ‘please’ or ‘thank you, should be used.”
Third, researchers suggest that the long-term use of smart speakers could hinder learning opportunities. These devices give quick information and answers to questions, which could interfere with how children learn and absorb information. For example, when a child asks a question to a smart speaker, they are not engaging in a conversation with an adult who might ask for more context to their question or offer insightful information beyond a concise answer. Children also do not have a sense of where smart speakers get their information, leading them to believe that smart devices are all-knowing.
What are the benefits?
There are advantages to using smart speakers. The functions a smart speaker offers can aid in children’s social and emotional development by helping them:
Smart speakers can foster children’s communication skills. Coach your child on how to be understood by the device through word choice, speaking clearly, or re-phrasing questions.
While most parents wish for the time to read to their children, smart speakers can be helpful by reading or singing to children, which can help them emotionally calm or re-focus.
Learn to identify emotions through listening to stories that expand vocabulary and develop auditory skills.
Problem-solve by playing educational voice games such as word puzzles.
Use words to communicate effectively by asking questions or stating commands to elicit the right response from the smart speaker.
Studies show that smart speakers can positively influence families by:
Answering kids’ schoolwork-related questions when a parent may not be available due to work schedules or other obligations.
Encouraging self-directed learning through playing games and asking questions.
Reading to kids stimulates their imagination and practice listening skills.
Helping parents remind kids of daily tasks such as brushing their teeth and cleaning their rooms.
Reducing screen time by offering verbal interactions with technology.
Providing accessible technology for kids with disabilities who may not be able to use a screen or keyboard.
How to support kids’ technology use
Since smart speakers can have advantages for both kids and parents, parents need to help kids use technology safely. Here are a few ideas to try out in your home:
Use smart devices together. Young children may not understand what smart speakers can and cannot do. For example, a preschool-age child may ask the speaker questions about how big an object is or where it was made. Demonstrate how to verbally interact with smart speakers so your child can observe. Try playing a voice game or dancing to music. Using technology as a social activity can promote children’s social development by centering a parent-child bond rather than a child’s interaction with a smart device.
Explain limitations. Help kids understand where smart speakers get their information. At a younger developmental age, kids don’t have a mental model for understanding that smart speakers are devices – not social beings – that respond to information. Kids react to attention by developing emotional attachments, which they may do with a smart speaker if they feel their verbal interactions are reciprocal. Conceptualizing speakers as machines can help guide their interactions with smart speakers as useful technology rather than personal friends.
Set parental controls on smart speakers to guide the kind of content kids can access. Parents can build their child’s smart speaker profile with a focus on educational content to help develop social-emotional skills through stories, play, and learning.
Create ground rules. Set expectations for how and when your family will use a smart speaker so there is shared understanding among family members. Healthy digital boundaries can limit kids’ reliance on smart speakers and encourage relationship-building interactions among family members.
More research is needed to understand the long-term effects of voice-assisted technology on kids’ social and emotional health. Research does show the benefits of smart speakers for families, such as aiding learning and helping with household tasks. Although every family will make different decisions about technology use in their home, parents can help their kids develop healthy and safe technology use habits.