Voice assistants could harm ‘children’s social development’

Artificial intelligence driving the devices, combined with human-sounding voices “can negatively affect the cognitive and social development of children” (Picture: Shutterstock)

Voice-enabled devices such as Google Home, AmazonAlexa from Alexa and Siri from Apple may have become children’s best friends, but this relationship could have a negative impact on their psychology.

The researchers warned that voice-activated smart devices could have “long-lasting consequences for empathy, compassion and critical thinking” in children.

Using these devices as reading buddies to improve children’s reading skills and as conversational “partners” to help them improve their communication skills could backfire.

Artificial intelligence driving the devices, coupled with human-sounding voices “can negatively affect children’s cognitive and social development”.

In a new opinion piece, published in the journal Archives of Disease in Childhood, academics said concerns about the impacts on children include “inappropriate responses”, “impeding social development” and “the hindrance to learning opportunities”.


Amazon Echo Dot
Polite mode encourages kids to say ‘please’ and ‘thank you’ when talking to Alexa (Photo: Reuters/Mike Blake/Illustration)

Ananya Arora and Anmol Arora of the University of Cambridge said there are concerns that children “over-anthropomorphize digital devices”, meaning they attribute human characteristics and behavior to devices, which is aggravated by some of the language used to light on.

On the other hand, there is no automatic waiting for children using the devices to say please or thank you, nor any consideration for the tone of voice by the user.

“Lack of the ability to engage in non-verbal communication makes device use a poor method of learning social interaction,” they wrote.

But they highlight the ‘magic word’ feature on Alexa – which uses positive reinforcement for polite manners as an ‘important step in the right direction’.

The authors wondered if instant response to any question could “impede the traditional processes by which children learn and absorb information.” Similar concerns were raised when the Internet and search engines became widely available.


Children raising their hands
Researchers have warned that voice-activated smart devices could have ‘long-term consequences for empathy, compassion and critical thinking’ in children (Picture: Danny Lawson/PA Wire)

They said the process of finding information is an “important learning experience” that teaches critical thinking and logical reasoning.

The researchers also highlighted some dangerous responses given to children, including a device “suggesting that a A 10-year-old girl should try to touch a live outlet with a coin.”

“Interaction with devices at a crucial stage of social and emotional development could have long-term consequences for empathy, compassion, and critical thinking,” the researchers said.

However, most of the concerns highlighted by this article are only supported by news reports and not by scientific evidence. Scientifically, little is known about the impact of voice assistants on children.

“This academic paper does not provide any new evidence for the impact of voice assistants on children,” said Dr Amy Orben, Senior Scientist at the MRC Cognition and Brain Sciences Unit, University of Cambridge.

“The impacts of voice assistants are likely mixed and very dependent on how they are used by children,”


Apple HomePod
Devices can impact the process of finding information that teaches critical thinking and logical reasoning (Picture: Shutterstock)

“Many of our customers have told us that Amazon Kids on Alexa, Echo Dot Kids and Kids Skills help their children, including those with autism and ADHD,” an Amazon spokesperson said.

“Our Amazon Kids on Alexa service provides parental controls that help parents manage how their children interact with technology and stream age-appropriate content,”

“We also offer a polite mode that encourages kids to say ‘please’ and ‘thank you’ when talking to Alexa. We believe voice technology will be a big part of the future and our goal is to provide an educational experience for children combined with controls that reassure parents.

AFTER : I miss the voices of my deceased parents – but I don’t want them speaking to me via Alexa

AFTER : Alexa mimicking human voices poses a security threat, experts warn

Joel C. Hicks