Siri, Google Home… These voice assistants would be harmful for children

THE ESSENTIAL

  • Research on the use of voice assistants as social companions for lonely adults is encouraging.
  • Children would find it difficult to understand how the information given by voice assistants is retrieved from the Internet.

“It is suggested that voice assistants (Google Home, Alexa and Siri) can act as friends and help improve children’s reading and communication skills. However, there are concerns about the long-term effects on children’s brains at a crucial stage in their development.” This is what researchers from the University of Cambridge (England) wrote in a study published in the journal Archives of Disease in Childhood.

Inappropriate or dangerous responses from voice assistants

Scientists have revealed that voice assistants can slow down children’s social and emotional development. These could have long-term negative effects by disrupting children’s critical thinking, empathy and compassion, and learning abilities.

As part of this work, the authors cited a few examples where voice assistants responded inappropriately or unsafely to children. “During a recent interaction between a child and the Alexa assistant, the device suggested a 10-year-old girl try to touch a socket with a coin. It is difficult to apply robust parental controls on these devices without seriously affecting their functionality”, can we read in the research.

Voice assistants: “a bad method of learning social interaction”

According to the team, children tend to think of social workers as sentient beings, even though they are aware that they are a machine. “Requiring forms of politeness, such as ‘please’ or ‘hello’, when interacting with devices may increase the risk that children will make the device appear or behave human. “the researchers said.

According to them, the tone of voice is not taken into account by voice assistants during the exchange. Simply put, the child cannot tell if his tone is rude or obnoxious. “The lack of ability to engage in non-verbal communication makes the use of these devices a poor method of learning social interaction. Whereas in real human interactions, a child would typically receive feedback constructive if it behaved inappropriately, that is beyond the scope of a smart device.”

Children: impaired social development due to Covid-19 restrictions

When a child interacts with an adult, he can also ask more questions and the adult can give him background information, explain the limits of his knowledge and learn more about the toddler’s reasoning. “This is particularly important at a time when children may already have had impaired social development due to Covid-19 restrictions and where (they) may be spending more time in isolation with voice assistants at home,” concluded the authors.


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