From reminding toilet-trained toddlers to go to the toilet to telling bedtime stories to being used as “conversation partners,” voice-activated smart devices have been used to help raise children almost from the day they are born.
But new research suggests that the rapid rise of voice assistants, including Google Home, Amazon Alexa and Apple’s Siri, may have long-term effects on children’s social and cognitive development, especially their empathy, compassion and criticality thinking ability.
“Multiple effects on children include inappropriate responses, hindered social development and hindered learning opportunities,” said Anmol Arora, co-author of the study published in the journal Archives of Childhood Diseases.
A key issue is that children attribute human characteristics and behaviors to devices, Arora says, “essentially a trained list of words and sounds that are mixed together to form a sentence.”
Children personified and then imitated the devices, replicating their failure to change pitch, volume, emphasis or intonation. Another problem is the machine’s lack of automatic expectations to say please or thank you to the child.
Devices are also limited in the types of questions they can answer. “Results,” Arora said. “Children will learn a very narrow form of questioning, and always in the form of a request.”
There are also problems with recognizing different accents. “If a child is particularly young, there’s a good chance they won’t be able to pronounce certain words correctly, and then there’s a chance their words will be misinterpreted and they’ll be exposed to something inappropriate,” he said, citing an example in which A 10-year-old girl was exposed to an online challenge where she was told to touch a live power plug with a coin.
“These devices don’t understand what they’re talking about,” he said. “All they did was regurgitate some information in response to a narrow inquiry, and it might have been misunderstood anyway, without really understanding safety or who was listening to it.”
Dr Ádám Miklósi, who recently published a study showing that the use of smartphones and tablets is “rewiring” children’s brains with long-term effects, called the study “important” and said more work was needed to allow companies to Take this issue seriously.
“Currently, these devices are very primitive because the people who developed them didn’t care about human interaction or their impact on children’s development,” he said.
“They know how adults use these devices, but the way children use them, and how they affect children, is very different,” he added. ‘We need more research, as well as ethical guidelines for children’s use of them’
But Canadian children’s digital media use and its impact on fostering solidarity: an ecosystem approach research chair Dr. Caroline Fitzpatrick said she didn’t think there was anything to worry about.
“It’s true that children need a wealth of context and cues to learn and develop vocabulary that they currently can’t get through interaction with technology because it provides very little information, tools and context,” she said.
“A child who is already timid or who spends too much time on their device may develop lower-quality social skills and social skills than their peers, as well as difficulty using basic politeness formulas and poor non-verbal communication skills – such as interrupting and not speaking to make eye contact,” she said. “These children have poorer quality relationships with peers, teachers and family members and experience increased social isolation.
“But as long as parents maintain the recommended limits for their children and they get healthy interactions from their carers and peers, then I don’t think there should be any reason to panic,” she added.