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

Smart devices may have long-term consequences for children’s empathy, compassion and critical thinking, researchers say

Voice-controlled smart devices could have long-term consequences on empathy, compassion and critical thinking among children, researchers have said.

From reminding potty-training toddlers to go to the loo to telling bedtime stories and being used as a “conversation partner”, voice-activated smart devices are being used to help rear children almost from the day they are born.

But the rapid rise in voice assistants — including Google Home, Amazon Alexa and Apple’s Siri — could, new research suggests, have a long-term impact on children’s social and cognitive development.

“The multiple impacts on children include inappropriate responses, impeding social development and hindering learning opportunities,” said Anmol Arora, co-author of research published in the journal Archives of Disease in Childhood.


A key concern is that children attribute human characteristics and behaviour to devices that are, said Mr Arora, “essentially a list of trained words and sounds mashed together to make a sentence”.

The children attribute human traits to the devices and then emulate them, copying their failure to alter their tone, volume, emphasis or intonation. Another issue is the machines’ lack of automatic expectation for children to say please or thank you.

Devices are also limited in the types of questions they can respond to. “As a result, children are going to be learning very narrow forms of questioning and always in the form of a demand,” Mr Arora said.

There are also problems with recognising different accents. “If a child is particularly young, they might well not be able to pronounce particular words properly and then there’s a risk their words might be misinterpreted and they’re exposed to something inappropriate,” he said, citing an example where a 10-year-old girl was exposed to an online challenge where she was told to touch a live electric plug with a coin.

“These devices don’t understand what they’re saying,” he said. “All they’re doing is regurgitating some information in response to a narrow query, which it might have misunderstood anyway, without any real understanding of safety or who’s listening to it.”

Dr Ádám Miklósi, who recently published a study showing that use of smartphones and tablets are ‘rewiring’ children’s brains with long-term effects, called the research “important” and said more needed to be done to get companies to take the issue seriously.

“At the moment, these devices are very primitive because the people who develop them don’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 the impact they have on children, is very different,” he added. “We need a lot more research, as well as ethical guidelines for their use by children”

However, Dr Caroline Fitzpatrick, the Canada Research Chair in Digital Media Use by Children and Its Implications for Promoting Togetherness: An Ecosystemic Approach, said she thought there was little cause for concern.

“A child who was already timid or who spent too much time on their device might develop lower quality social skills and social competence than their peers, as well as difficulty using basic politeness formulations and poor non-verbal communication skills — such as interrupting and not making eye contact,” she said.

“Those children would have lower quality relationships with their peers, teachers and family members and increased social isolation.

“But as long as parents keep to the recommended limits for children, and they’re getting a healthy amount of interaction from their caregivers and peers, then I don’t think there should be cause for alarm,” Dr Fitzpatrick added. — Guardian