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Smart speakers can be amazing tools but parents need to be cautious

By for CAES News

“Hey Alexa, why do trees have leaves?”

“Assistant, add 50 boxes of Oreos to my shopping cart.”

“Siri, play ‘Scarface’ on TV.”

Kids say the darnedest things, and with the advent of smart speakers, what they say can have some unforeseen consequences.

Smart speakers can make busy parents’ lives easier while providing an opportunity for curious kids to learn to carry out simple tasks, like adding items to the grocery list or turning off their light at night with their voice. But smart speakers also present parents with new challenges, said Associate Professor Diane Bales, University of Georgia Cooperative Extension human development specialist.

Questions remain, but smart speakers do have potential

Smart speakers present an opportunity for kids to find answers on any topic, like space or animals, but they also present an opportunity for chaos. Questions remain about the impact of smart speakers on children’s social and psychological well-being. The jury is still out on what those effects may be, if any, according to Bales.

“We don’t know yet,” Bales said. “They’re so new that there hasn’t been time to research them.”

“Overuse of technology, in general, is not a good thing for kids,” she said.

On the other hand, smart speakers can spark a child’s desire to learn about new topics and get kids into the habit of investigating their world.

“The speakers give children easy access to information in ways that even younger kids can understand,” she said. “Kids understand asking a question and getting an answer, so the speakers can be good tools for those kinds of things.”

Companies are catching on

That said, there are lots of things parents don’t want their kids learning from a smart speaker.

The best way to monitor a child’s smart speaker use is by being cautious, paying attention and monitoring their physical use. Bales suggests keeping the speaker in a public place in the home, outside of your child’s bedroom, and using the smart speaker’s parental controls.

“One good thing about smart speakers is that you have to do things out loud, which limits what kids can access without their parents' knowledge,” Bales said.

Companies have instituted a number of parental controls in their speakers to take the monitoring burden off of parents.

Amazon recently launched a kid-friendly Echo smart speaker. Other companies, like Google Assistant, have launched kid-friendly tools, such as Pretty Please, which requires children to use a polite tone of voice and say “Please” and “Thank you.”

The Amazon Echo Dot Kids Edition comes with a colorful, protective case and uses Amazon’s FreeTime subscription service to block content, read Audible books aloud, set time limits, pause Alexa, and many other features that allow parents to control what their child accesses through Alexa.

For more research-backed answers to questions about children and technology, visit www.fcs.uga.edu/extension/early-childhood.