“Alexa, add bananas to my shopping list.”

Chances are, you or someone you know has one of the latest popular gadgets: a smart speaker. The most common iterations of this device are the Amazon Echo line (which are powered by the AI bot known as “Alexa”), Microsoft speakers (featuring Cortana) and Google Home. These smart speakers function as digital virtual assistants, helping users to accomplish more simply by speaking vocal commands. These devices can play your favourite song, complete simple maths problems, or even do your online shopping for you. Just say “Alexa” (or another of the “wake word” options) and the device is engaged, listening, and ready to lend a (digital) hand.

In many ways, these smart speakers can be extremely beneficial. When used in the home, the devices are capable of performing many actions for you, freeing up not only your hands but also limiting the time you might spend staring at the screen. And there’s no doubt that Alexa and friends can aid in saving time. Why type a question into Google when you can simply ask your question aloud?

Smart speakers have exploded in growth over the past couple of years. Recent statistics suggest that roughly 500,000 Australian homes contain a smart speaker, with that number expected to hit 3 million by 2022. Plenty of tech experts agree that these devices are a staple of the future.

But are there any drawbacks to these smart speakers/digital assistants? Should we have any concerns about them and their capabilities? And as parents, how can we have control over the content our kids can access? How can we protect our kids with this unique new technology?

Setting Parental Controls on Speakers
Will a smart speaker become the newest member of your family?

Smart Speakers + Kids: The Potential Hazards and Snafus

So, Echo, Google Home, and the like are basically robots that we can talk to. What’s the problem with that?

At first glance, there really is nothing nefarious about these devices. Kids can have fun using them alongside their parents, and as small, stationary speakers, they require voice commands to operate. This means that, unlike with screens, kids’ interaction with Alexa is audible and apparent. This could indicate that smart speakers are less likely to get kids into trouble, right?

Possibly not.

A six-year-old girl in Texas was “chatting” with Alexa about two things she loved: cookies and dollhouses. Somehow, this translated into Alexa placing an order for 7 pounds of cookies and an expensive dollhouse! The girl’s mother caught the error when an email confirmation arrived for her order. (The family has since implemented a PIN code that must be used before completing purchases via their speaker).

In a not-altogether-dissimilar tale, a London woman discovered that her pet parrot was mimicking more than she bargained for. It would start by saying “Alexa” and then order some items. While this example stars a bird, it’s not beyond possibility that a child could repeat what they hear and do the same.

These humorous stories are light-hearted, but do smart speakers pose real dangers for kids?

Without the right parental controls put in place, it is possible that kids could access inappropriate content. This is perhaps most applicable with some music player apps, including Spotify, which don’t currently have the ability to block certain explicit songs or albums via smart speakers.

Many people have also expressed concerns regarding privacy and these devices. Because the AI “learns” information about users, some are worried it could learn too much, limiting the privacy within our homes. For parents, privacy is an especially big concern. Recently, this apprehension about privacy actually lead toy manufacturer Mattel to suspend its plans to release a smart speaker geared specifically toward children.

Still, privacy concerns prevail.

Although Google, Amazon and others have shared that audio recordings of user requests are stored, they insist that these are only stored briefly, usually until the next “wake word” is said and a new command is given. They’ve also said that they do not record constantly, as some sceptics had feared. A Google representative said of the Home that it “only stores what users ask or command after they wake the device.”

Google has a patent on file that describes a possible future for smart devices, such as the ability of a device to spot a book you’re reading on the table and then alert you to showings of the film version on television. This could be useful, but the agency is frightening for some. Is such tech a step too far?

Lagging Social Skills and Other Potential Problems Alexa Could Be Guilty Of

So, it seems that most of our privacy fears can be allayed when it comes to Alexa and these other AI-driven speakers. But maybe concerns about safety and privacy aren’t the problem for our kids. Instead, it could be the psychological and social implications that we need to keep an eye on.

Kids today are growing up surrounded by devices, which is undoubtedly changing the landscape of their childhood. Intelligent digital assistants, while amazing to older generations, are commonplace for today’s young people. When used properly, modern technology offers endless advantages. But the ubiquity of these devices, particularly smart speakers, could translate into certain issues, if we’re not careful.

For instance, have you heard about the baby whose first word was “Alexa?” Yes, this infant child’s first utterance was the name of an AI robot, not Mama or Dada. And there have actually been several incidences of this happening across the globe.

While there’s no possibility that Alexa could ever replace parents, some have expressed concerns that such an assistant could substitute for some parental responsibilities. A smart speaker, for instance, could answer your child’s questions nonstop, providing them with an endless stream of responses and factual information without ever tiring. You can’t say the same for a real-life mum and dad! And while the notion of our kids learning new information is a positive one, it’s vital to be sure that real, human interactions and conversations are taking place.

Some fear that early exposure to using AI could result in kids lacking adequate social skills. After all, Alexa can’t read tone or respond in an emotional context, the way a real-life human would. If children are interacting heavily with Alexa (and not in social situations), they may be learning to converse in a way that doesn’t include emotional or social cues. In fact, these robotic digital assistants seem to answer best when queries are made clearly and precisely. Using a polite term such as “please” will often confuse the assistant. This means that when making a request, it is said as a command. Hearing this could be confusing for kids, who don’t necessarily infer that Alexa is not a real person. Because she’s a robot, she doesn’t react to the improper behaviour, but simply does as asked.

This can spell trouble for young kids, who might think that an AI personality is something of a servant to them. They may grow sassy or develop a sense of entitlement, speaking to Alexa in a rude or impatient manner. When interacting with adults in real-life, some of the habits they’ve picked up chatting with adult-sounding Alexa may translate to their human conversations. Your child may demand that Gran play a song for them, or start asking their school teacher an endless barrage of questions, believing they will respond immediately à la Alexa. In a sense, smart speakers could contribute to the growth of bad manners in kids.

Setting Parental Controls on Speakers
The passivity of smart speakers could contribute to ill-mannered children.

There’s also the question of how kids view Alexa. As adults, we understand that AI are not sentient beings, but the same may not necessarily be said of children, particularly young ones. In one study of kids and their relationship with intelligent devices, children were interviewed after interacting with a humanoid robot. The results were telling. According to the abstract, “The interview data showed that the majority of children believed that Robovie had mental states (e.g., was intelligent and had feelings) and was a social being (e.g., could be a friend, offer comfort, and be trusted with secrets).”

It’s easy to imagine the host of unique problems this type of belief could create.

Setting Parental Controls for Your Smart Speakers

So, how can you make your smart speakers their safest?

For devices under the Amazon Echo umbrella, parental controls were added in early 2018. Essentially, the first time a “kid skill” is enabled, Alexa will ask users to provide parental permission. This must be done using the Alexa companion app on a different device. To verify, parents can do a couple of things, including entering a one-time password sent by SMS to their mobile phone, or verify using a credit card. Once this has been completed, it only needs to be done once, and kids will be able to use Alexa’s kid skills to their heart’s content.

To have control over the content your kids can access on an Echo device, you’ll need to log into Amazon.

Once you’ve logged in, head to your home page and click on Account & Lists to head into “My Account.”

Scroll down a bit until you find the box labelled Shopping Programs, located in the bottom right. Here, click on the link for Amazon Household.

The Household homepage will appear, and you can now click on Add a Child.

Enter the basic info for your child to create their user profile, and click save. Now, you’ll be able to engage parental controls for that user.

Navigate to Manage Your Household, and then click on Manage Your Content and Devices to control what purchased content your child can access and on what device.

To prevent unwanted purchases made via Alexa, you can also set up a pin or disable voice purchasing altogether. To do this, you’ll need to go to echo.amazon.com or open your Alexa app. Tap Menu and then Settings. Scroll down to find Voice Purchasing. Here, you can choose to require a voice code/pin to make purchases or switch off the voice purchasing feature.

Need more details on the parental controls for Echo? A step-by-step guide with screenshots can be found here.

You can also take advantage of a great new feature from Amazon called FreeTime. This gives you access to a Parent Dashboard (on the site or on an app), where you can control and monitor the content your kids can access, set time limits on their usage, and prevent the device from playing songs with explicit lyrics.

With FreeTime Unlimited, a small monthly fee gets you access to the best feature: a large collection of child-friendly content including 300 Audible audiobooks, playlists from family-friendly stations like Radio Disney, and an array of fun kid-focused skills for Alexa. You can even purchase the new Amazon Echo Dot Kids Edition, which comes with a FreeTime subscription and is designed just for the kiddos.

Google Home can also be equipped with parental controls and settings. Just recently, a Google Assistant update created something known as the Pretty Please mode, designed to encourage politeness in kids. Instead of issuing a decree to the Google Assistant, kids will have to say please or thank you in order to get a response. The device will reward kids with compliments on their politeness. This innovative feature is likely to be a favourite of many parents, as it will help keep kids working on their manners.

Using a program called Family Link, you can set up parental controls for your child’s use of the Google Home device. By creating their own unique profile, your child can have Google Home learn to recognise their voice.

You will need two separate devices to do this. One is your main smartphone or device, from which you can manage the controls. The other is a second device which will run the child’s account.

To start, download the Family Link app on both devices. Once this is complete, open the app on your own device and do the following:

There are also a couple more settings you can switch on for your kids’ protection.

Restrict your kid's access to third-party apps by heading to Manage Settings in the Family Link app.

Click Google Assistant, and switch Third-party apps to off.

It’s also a smart idea to turn off the ability to pay with Google Assistant. Like with Alexa, you can make purchases via voice command, if you choose to. But with kids, this could result in some unwanted purchases (1000 pizzas anyone?).

To disable this feature, open the Home app and select Settings for your Google Home. Scroll down and tap on More. Toggle 'Pay with your Assistant' to the off setting.

More Ways to Help Your Kids Use Smart Speakers

Aside from controls on apps and on your speaker, you can also take steps to waylay any potential problems caused by Alexa and her AI minions.

Turn it into a Conversation

Aside from controls on apps and on your speaker, you can also take steps to waylay any potential problems caused by Alexa and her AI minions.

Don’t let smart speakers run the show. While your kids may be getting some answers and information by asking Alexa questions, you can turn these moments into a learning and conversing experience. Ask your kids what they think about Alexa’s response. Expand upon the answers the speaker has given. Let the discussion travel towards a tangential topic. Doing this keeps the smart speaker as a part of a larger conversation between people---the most important members of the conversation.

Model good device behaviour

Kids learn by watching. If you’re polite to Alexa, chances are they’ll follow suit. If they see you approaching technology in a balanced manner, they’ll follow your lead. The same goes for every device in your home. Model the behaviours you wish your kids to adopt and you’ll find that it’s much easier to promote a good tech-life balance.

Use traditional resources for research

One worry with digital assistants, and even with the Internet itself, is that today’s kids aren’t learning how to conduct research the old-fashioned way. With the answers to any question at our fingertips, fewer people are taking the time to consult encyclopaedias or reading at the library. As a family, do some of this together. This can help show kids the value of traditional learning, as well as the reward for finding an answer on your own steam.

Setting Parental Controls on Speakers
Technology can be part of a balanced life.

Using the Device for Good

It could be easy to come to the conclusion that kids simply shouldn’t use Alexa and other digital assistant smart speakers. But that may not be the easiest answer. If you plan to use them in your home, your kids will be exposed to them frequently, and they will likely want to use Alexa on their own.

Today’s manufacturers are growing wiser when it comes to kids, too. They’ve begun developing programs that are geared exclusively for children, with heaps of fun options that include Amazon Storytime, Animal Game, Wake Up Clock, SpongeBob Challenge, and Sesame Street, among many, many more. These can be educational and delightful for children, giving them the opportunity to interact with the latest technology while keeping the content age-appropriate and edifying.

Alexa is now also capable of answering questions in a kid-centric, parenting-focused manner. When asked certain questions, she responds by suggesting kids talk to their parents or a trusted adult for more information. This is a great move that indicates a shift in AI’s role, deferring to parents and keeping family conversations centre stage.

Ultimately, the responsibility for safe smart speaker usage lies with us parents. It’s important to take action to ensure our home devices have the best possible security settings and parental controls engaged. And perhaps even more important is our commitment to teaching our kids how to use intelligent technology responsibly and in balance.

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