Voice assistants could ‘hinder children’s social and cognitive development’

Voice-controlled devices like Google Home, Amazon’s Alexa and Apple’s Siri might have become children’s best friends but this relationship could be negatively impacting their psychology.

Researchers have warned that voice-controlled smart devices could have ‘long-term consequences on empathy, compassion and critical thinking’ among children.

Using these devices as reading companions to improve children’s reading skills and as conversation ‘partners’ to help them improve their communication skill could backfire.

The artificial intelligence driving the devices, coupled with the human-sounding voices ‘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’, ‘impeding social development’ and ‘hindering learning opportunities’.

Ananya Arora and Anmol Arora, from the University of Cambridge, said there have been concerns that children ‘over-anthropomorphise digital devices’, meaning they attribute human characteristics and behaviour to the devices, which is compounded by some of the language used to turn on them on.

On the other hand 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.

‘The lack of ability to engage in non-verbal communication makes use of the devices a poor method of learning social interaction,’ they wrote.

But they highlight the ‘magic word’ function on Alexa – which uses positive reinforcement for polite manners as an ‘important step in the right direction’.

The authors questioned whether the instantaneous response to any question could ‘hinder traditional processes by which children learn and absorb information’. Similar concerns were raised when the internet and search engines became widely available.

They said the process of searching for information is an ‘important learning experience’ which teaches critical thinking and logical reasoning.

The researchers also highlighted some dangerous responses given to children, including a device ‘suggesting that a 10-year-old girl should try touching a live plug with a coin’.

‘Interacting with the devices at a crucial stage in social and emotional development might have long-term consequences on empathy, compassion and critical thinking,’ said the researchers.

However, most concerns highlighted by this article are only backed up by news reports and not scientific evidence. Scientifically, little is known about the impact of voice assistants on children.

‘This academic paper does not provide any novel evidence about the impact of voice assistants on children,’ said Dr Amy Orben, lead scientist at MRC Cognition and Brain Sciences Unit, University of Cambridge.

‘The impacts of voice assistants are probably mixed and very dependent on how they are used by children,’

‘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,’ said a spokesperson for Amazon.

‘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,’

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