In Yana Welinder’s house, her son will say “Papa!’ to either her or her husband. “Mama” isn’t in his vocabulary yet. But her son, who just turned 1, does have a name for another prominent figure in the household: “Aga!”
Or, as the rest of us know her, Alexa — Amazon's voice assistant.
Welinder’s son can’t summon the assistant from the Echo speaker in their home on his own. But he knows what he’s trying to do.
“He says it and he looks at her, and he expects her to respond,” Welinder said. “It cracks me up every time.”
Parents still grappling with kids' app and smartphone use now have a new relationship to navigate — the bond between their kids and the all-knowing, all-hearing disembodied voice in the corner. Several parents have uploaded videos to YouTube of their kids interacting with Amazon's Alexa or Google's Assistant AI. Some kids chatter with the voice assistants, peppering them with questions or imploring them to play their favorite songs. Others treat them as a friend who listens to what they would like to have and, in the case of Alexa, can send them gifts (much to the surprise of parents who receive those unintended orders.).
(Amazon chief executive Jeffrey P. Bezos also owns The Washington Post.)
While kids seem to understand that voice assistants aren't people, research shows that many see them as their own entities. But as with so many questions about kids and tech, it's hard to say what that means for their development — and whether it could be harmful.
“The jury's out on it,” said Pamela Hurst-Della Pietra, founder and president of the nonprofit group Children and Screens: Institute of Digital Media and Child Development.
Mobile-device use among kids is already on the rise. The parental advocacy group Common Sense Media found that the average time that children 8 years old and younger spend on mobile devices has tripled over the past six years to a daily average of 48 minutes. The group also found that 42 percent of kids in that age group have their own tablet.
Voice assistants, with their conversational nature, take the tech relationship to another level. When it comes to voice assistants, Common Sense Media estimates that at least one in every 10 homes with young children has a voice-activated device in it.
And as research continues on the effects of these new, budding relationships, tech firms are quickly adding more kid-friendly features. Amazon recently made it easier for teens to order items through the Echo speaker on their parents’ accounts. Google has positioned its Home smart hub as a source for homework help and now allows parents to create kid-safe Google accounts for the Home. Mattel recently canceled plans for a child-focused home hub called Aristotle, amid concerns over privacy.
Regulators are starting to look at home hubs for kids, but are focused solely on privacy issues. For example, the Federal Trade Commission recently said that companies can collect voice queries from children without fear of reprisal, as long as they use and store them only to understand a query. Amazon said in a statement that it was evaluating the new rules to protect privacy and offer new features. Google spokeswoman Kara Berman said the company is compliant with the kids' privacy law and does not store audio recordings from kid-focused apps — apart from whatever is necessary to process what someone has said.
But the broader issue of whether it affects development is harder to nail down. Those opposing Mattel's Aristotle highlighted that a voice assistant in the nursery could hurt parental bonding, if the child considered the voice assistant to be their first playmate or a source of comfort. Also, kids may not be able to wrap their minds around a friend that has no body but can carry on a (stilted) conversation. And Hurst-Della Pietra, who has a background in pediatrics, said assistants may give kids the impression that everything can be done instantaneously. Parents may also regret letting their kids issue orders without so much as a “please” in a voice assistant's direction.
Just think carefully about the implications of tech in your home, said Jim Steyer, executive director of Common Sense Media. Don't think of as smartphones and other gadgets as toys, he said, but rather as the supercomputers they are. And consider declaring the bedroom a tech-free zone and setting times when kids should be unplugged, such as dinnertime.
Technology, he said, is not a bad thing in and of itself. But parents should know how tech works, particularly when incorporated deeply into the home. Used well, voice assistants can build communication skills or teach kids phrases in other languages.
Welinder said she has thought deeply about her son's relationship with tech and is fine with his choice of early words. Her husband works in artificial intelligence, and she is a former technology lawyer and now product manager at the 3D-printing firm Carbon. She said their aim is to have her son learn to use Alexa just as he would any other tool, to be creative.
“It's not for him to get lazy or spend less time trying to find information,” she said.
Welinder is already thinking about ways to explain Alexa to her son when he's older. She and her husband like the idea that her son will grow up in a world in which objects can talk back to him — defining what's imaginary and what's real will be the problem to solve. Until he's old enough to understand, however, Welinder thinks it's most likely her son will think of the voice as an imaginary figure, like Santa Claus.