Children Are Embracing Virtual Assistants And Maybe That's OK

2 min
Claudia and Fern Charles decide on what game to play next with their Amazon Echo Dot. (Photo: Courtesy of Graham Charles)

Tech companies call it the “smart home.” You know, your refrigerator talks to Amazon. Your doorbell talks to Apple. Your virtual assistant talks to your kids. How do you feel about that last one? 

Graham Charles is a stay-at-home dad in San Francisco with two daughters: nine year-old Claudia , and 11 year-old Fern. They’ve had an Amazon Echo Dot for a little over a year.

Charles bought it for the house because he wanted to turn the lights on and off. “We have a home automation system but you have to find the app, and now I can just say ‘Alexa, turn off the kitchen counter lights.’”

The girls like to use it for help with homework and play music. A lot of kids (I'm not naming any names here) also like to encourage virtual assistants to say bad words or make fart sounds.

Even though Charles bought the Dot, the virtual assistant is tracking everyone in the home who talks to it. The ostensible intent of the tracking is to deliver a more satisfying, personalized experience, but there are other directives: to track your habits for advertisers -- and to make shopping effortless. What stops the girls from stuffing Charles’ Amazon shopping cart with chocolate or chips or whatever?

Meet the Google Home family. Three devices each ready to respond to the sound of your voice -- and your children's voices.
Meet the Google Home family. Three devices each ready to respond to the sound of your voice -- and your children's voices. (Photo: Courtesy of Google)

"You know, I haven’t done that before, but that’s a good idea," Fern says.

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Great. Now I'm corrupting innocent children with my reporting.

But Charles says he’s not really worried about his kids behaving badly — or companies tracking his family, be they Amazon or Nabisco. Some consumer advocates say advertisers shouldn’t be allowed to, but Charles says, "I think the only thing that keeps kids safe is teaching them how to keep themselves safe."

He adds, "I think that their world is going to be consumed with technology for their entire lives, so they’d better get used to making their own choices about it now."

His daughter Claudia isn't so optimistic. She says she even tapes over the camera on the computer she uses. I ask who she worries might be snooping on her.  "Probably the President (Donald Trump)."

Apple is expected to enter the market for virtual assistants later this year with a product called HomePod.
Apple is expected to enter the market for virtual assistants later this year with a product called HomePod. (Photo: Courtesy of Apple)

"Their lives are online. You know, some children have been tracked since they were in utero!" says Yalda Uhls, a research scientist who studies children and media at UCLA and works with Common Sense Media, a non-profit advocacy group for parents. She says there is no privacy for anyone in the way older generations used to think of it. Not even for kids.

"Think through every device you bring into the home that they’re going to touch. Because they are going to be tracked," Uhls says.

What you can do, Uhls says, is help them navigate this brave new world by being a mentor instead of a policeman. "We’re in an attention economy, and yes, these devices grab our attention possibly more than, you know, a movie did, or a TV show did. So teach your child to be a smart consumer and to think about things."

If Uhls lies awake at night worrying about the future, it’s usually because she just watched an episode of the science fiction show Black Mirror. Like the one called, "Arkangel," where a mom gets a chip implanted in her daughter’s brain that allows her to monitor what her child sees through a tablet. The idea is to protect her daughter, but, I don’t need to tell you it ends badly.

But that’s science fiction… right?

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