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Pros and Cons of Virtual Assistants for Kids

This holiday season, virtual assistants like Amazon’s Alexa, Google’s Home, and Microsoft’s Cortana¬†might be on your family’s wish list. With every new technology that changes our lives comes worry about how it may affect our children. And because technology comes out faster than long-term research studies, we don’t really know how virtual assistants will affect kids in the long run.

That said, there’s no reason to panic. The advice we do have stems from our understanding of child development.

Privacy Concerns

Parents, pediatricians, and child advocates pressured Mattel to cancel plans for a device called Aristotle, which would have collected data from children and stored it in the cloud. With any device that functions on artificial intelligence, data collection allows it to “get to know” users in order to better respond to their preferences. However, children have a tendency of divulging information without a filter, and even innocuous information raises concerns when it becomes public.

Understanding Devices Are Not People

When I was a very young child, I assumed that live bands played inside the car radio. Very young children are working on their grasp of reality. That’s why video games need to be age-appropriate, if played at all. The functions of parenting cannot be fully replaced by any technology. Virtual assistants can give mom and dad a break by answering a child’s torrent of questions, but they cannot teach everything a child needs to know. Also, if the child develops an emotional attachment to an AI unit, it cannot reciprocate love and warmth.

Developing Social Skills

Have you ever been rude to an automated phone menu? Frustrated by the lack of helpful customer service, you might say things to the robotic recording that you (hopefully) would not say to a person. Even then, you know that you’re being¬† rude, you just rationalize it. A child is still learning manners, and if he or she speaks rudely to a virtual assistant, it will not behave differently. Correction has to come from the parents. The virtual assistant does not have feelings that can be hurt, but once your child goes to day care or school, he or she will be interacting with people. Developing conversational skills with the help of a virtual assistant has some limits, and that’s where parents must step in.

On the other side of the coin, virtual assistants sometimes have trouble recognizing words spoken by young children. It’s important for children to feel heard and understood, so if they are growing frustrated with their robot friend, it could be that their words are lost in translation. Real people are able to work together to achieve understanding.

As always, moderation and attentive parenting are key. Not all TV shows are the same; 30 minutes of Curious George benefits your child while giving you a break, but 2 hours of The Walking Dead? Not so much. Likewise, letting your child converse for a little while with the AI while you’re half-listening in the next room: probably safe. Letting the AI babysit your child: not at all safe. Any time a new technology comes out, trust your gut while you wait for the official medical recommendation. Learn about the potential risks, and make house rules that everyone understands.

Posted in Blog on November 30th, 2017