Kids and Smart Speakers: What Could Go Wrong?
By Wendy Lee, SAN FRANCISCO CHRONICLE
December 15, 2017
When 5-year-old Colin Martin wants to find out where snow leopards live or what sounds animals make, he doesn’t have to ask his parents. He can just say “Hey, Google,” and an Internet-connected speaker will spit out an answer.
“I like it,” Colin said of his family’s Google Home .
As more people rely on audio-equipped digital assistants for scheduling, shopping and searching for information, child care and health experts wonder what effect it will have on kids.
Little research is available. The highly regarded American Academy of Pediatrics’ guidelines on technology for small children, for example, do not include specific information about interactive voice devices like Google Home, the Amazon Echo or Apple’s HomePod (which hits stores next year).
The digital age, with its omnipresent screens and access to all types of information, causes a wide range of worries for parents. But the Internet-connected speakers pose a different type of challenge, because unlike services that require a computer or a password, they can respond to any voice that asks a question and are often located in a common area in a home.
“It’s wrong to target kids with devices when they don’t really understand what they are,” said John Simpson, privacy project director of Consumer Watchdog.
But Colin’s father, Michael Martin, a social media manager, said his son is “fascinated by the fact that he can ask Google almost anything,” but he mainly likes to learn what sounds are made by tigers, bears or other animals.
“To me, having the Google Home is another tool for him to absorb information, and I’m OK with that,” Martin said, adding that learning more “helps you in life.”
The smart speakers are always listening, waiting for a trigger phrase like “Alexa” (the name of Amazon’s voice assistant) or “OK, Google,” followed by a request like “What’s the weather today?” or a command like “Turn on NPR.”
This year, more than 20 percent of U.S. households with a broadband connection plan to buy an Internet-connected speaker with a digital assistant, according to research firm Parks Associates. And tech firms are offering more features for children on the Amazon Echo and Google Home; other tech companies are even building voice-enabled robots that can befriend children.
Yana Welinder said that when her son was 7 or 8 months old, he began to say “Aga” at the family’s Amazon Echo — his word for Alexa. He said that before “mama.” Welinder, a product manager at a Redwood City startup, is amused at how much he likes it.
“It will teach him to think logically about how you interact with this device,” 33-year-old Welinder said. “It’s a very positive interaction.”
But concerns are growing that children may develop bad manners through smart speakers.
“If you do something silly in a rude or demanding way toward Alexa and she responds every time, it’s going to reinforce that behavior,” said Dr. Jenny Stillwaggon Radesky, a member of the American Academy of Pediatrics Council on Communications and Media.
A child might demand something of Alexa and she’ll respond, and perhaps the child will try the same thing with his or her grandmother, she added.
Google said it is “absolutely something we’ve heard and think about” and is working to address the issue.
“It’s still early for this technology, but our goal is to make a helpful Assistant that models polite behavior if you’re polite to it,” Google spokeswoman Kara Stockton said in an email. If a user says “please,” the assistant will say something like “I’ll try to help,” she said.
In October, Google added 50 more kid-centric activities, including games and storytelling features, to the Home. One is Disney’s “Mickey Mouse Adventure,” which allows kids to offer suggestions to Mickey in an audio story.
“Because it’s so simple and easy to use, it’s turning out for a lot of kids that this is their first computing device,” Rishi Chandra, a Google vice president of product management for home products, said in a recent interview. “It’s becoming a meaningful part of how kids develop around computing. Instead of thinking of it as an afterthought, why don’t we embrace it and help kids learn more?”
Google Home can also be used as an intercom, and Chandra said his kids have used it to send snarky comments letting their parents know they were already awake.
Amazon says its digital assistant, Alexa, has more than 160 abilities or skills for kids, like a quiz on the sounds of animals. In October it offered a challenge to developers to build more kid-oriented features, with prizes worth $250,000.
“We hear that families love interacting together with Alexa, and we want the Alexa voice service to get more valuable for these families every day,” Amazon said in an email.
Google said it has been improving the way its speaker recognizes children’s voices, and it allows parents to create accounts on the Home, including ones for children.
Some worry that the speakers may be used for marketing. Google, with a search engine as its core business, primarily makes money through advertising, and Amazon sells goods and services online.
This year, Mattel decided to not sell its kid-centric smart speaker after consumer advocates raised privacy concerns.
In a patent application filed in 2015, Google outlined scenarios in which Internet-connected devices work together to infer things about users and suggest activities. For example, if an Internet-connected camera notices that a user has the book “The Godfather” on a nightstand, a device could alert the user when the movie is being shown on TV. Or a teenager could walk in carrying a basketball and the user would see advertisements for basketball camps or video games, the patent application said.
“It raises tremendous problems in terms of privacy,” said Simpson with Consumer Watchdog, which published a report this week raising concerns about Google’s patent applications. “They may not be doing some of these things yet, but companies don’t patent ideas unless that’s where they intend to head.”
Stockton, the Google spokeswoman, called Consumer Watchdog’s claims “unfounded,” adding that the Home only stores what users ask or command after they wake the device.
“All devices that come with the Google Assistant, including Google Home, are designed with user privacy in mind,” Stockton said. She did not immediately respond to a request for comment on whether ads are tailored for users based on recorded responses.
Still, plenty of some parents see value in the new voice-enabled technology. Judith Newman, author of “To Siri With Love: A Mother, Her Autistic Son and the Kindness of Machines,” said Apple’s voice assistant, Siri, which is on the iPhone, helped her autistic son get better at talking with people.
“He would be practicing back-and-forth conversation,” she said. “Being autistic, there weren’t that many people who had the patience to do this with him very often. You can do that with Siri.”