smart speakers

A Parent’s Guide to Not Feeling So Bad About Using Alexa

A happy family and its talking and always-listening AI. Illustration: Select All

With Amazon’s Echo Dot speaker breaking the company’s sales records over Black Friday and Cyber Monday this year and the Google Home exploding in popularity, there’s going to be a lot of homes getting smart speakers for the first time. As a parent of an 8-month-old kid, let me say: they’re great, and also very weird and scary!

One the one hand, smart speakers are insanely helpful, especially with kids. The ability to tell a little robot to turn off my lights or play my daughter’s favorite song while I’m also juggling her and her stuff from daycare is one of those quality-of-life tech leisures that, once you’ve experienced it, it’s hard to imagine living without. On the other hand, my kid is also watching my wife and me talk to a little cylinder that lights up, and will eventually talk to that cylinder herself, and these cylinders are basically microphones and speakers that transmit data back to corporations who are collecting more information about us than has ever been possible before in history. Like a lot of modern consumer tech, I’m living on that queasy knife-edge between convenience and feeling creeped out.

I also worry, frankly, about the master/servant relationship between a smart speaker and myself, and how that’ll affect my kid. If I spoke to any person the way I have to talk to Alexa or the Google Assistant in order to get it work properly — no small talk, terse sentences, and only asking questions or issuing commands — I’d be a sociopath who would likely end up in a viral subway video. Modeling that behavior in front of my child is just another soupçon of the simmering anxiety every parent has that they’re somehow gonna screw their kid up.

To make myself feel better, and to learn more about what parents should be thinking about as they set up their new smart speakers, I turned to Laura Dell, an assistant professor at the University of Cincinnati and an expert in educational media, and Dustin York, a professor and director of Maryville University’s online communications program, for advice.

Set Up Parental Controls

Before you do anything else, set up parental controls. Both the Echo and the Google Home are so simple to set up out of the box, it can be easy to skip over setting up parental controls. “The first settings you want to handle,” says Professor York, “would be purchases, and then explicit language.”

For Alexa, that means using Amazon’s FreeTime service, which hosts a suite of parental controls for Amazon devices, from Fire tablets to the Echo. For Google Home, you’ll be using Google’s Digital Wellbeing service. Both will allow you to do things like control the ability to buy things through a smart speaker, filter explicit music, and restrict certain types of searches. “There might be content that you have that you get through your smart speaker that maybe you don’t want your children to have ready access to,” says Professor Dell.

Talk to Your Kids About the Smart Speaker

Before you turn your kid loose on Alexa or the Google Home Assistant, talk to them about the smart speaker. “Have a conversation with your child once you set it up,” says Professor York. The conversation shouldn’t just be about what the smart speaker can do and what they’re allowed to do with it, but about what it is. “There’s some very preliminary research coming out trying to figure out how kids are distinguishing between fantasy and reality when it comes to smart speakers,,” says Professor Dell. “What it seems is that by 5 to 7 years old, kids are starting to understand that the smart speaker is not a person, but they still attribute feelings to it.” This may be a heavy ontological discussion to be having with your child, but a smart speaker is something they’re potentially going to be talking to quite a bit. You can’t just plug it in walk away like you would with a Roomba.

Have a Conversation With Your Kids About Privacy

A quick refresher on how smart speakers work: Unless they’re muted, a smart speaker is listening at all times, but it will only record and send data when it hears its “wake word” (usually “Alexa” or “Hey, Google”). But those recordings stick indefinitely — both Amazon and Google, by default, keep all of your queries made to their smart speakers until you manually delete them. Both companies also say they don’t share that data with third parties, but it’s something to think about. “The privacy features are still, I think, pretty murky,” says Professor Dell. “What’s happening with that data and what’s going on?”

This means you’ll need to talk to your kids about the idea of privacy — a conversation you should be having regardless. “The same as telling your kid to look both ways crossing the street, in 2018, you should be talking to your kids about online privacy,” says Professor York. “Children may not think about things like telling the smart speaker their name, how old they are, their street address, their phone number,” says Professor Dell. “Things that as adults, we may not want to have potentially recorded or put into a database.” This, of course, doesn’t just apply to smart speakers — but as smart speakers become more prevalent, they’ll increasingly be the first occasions for kids (and parents) to start thinking about online privacy.

Supervise Young Kids

One of the reasons kids love smart speakers is that they give them access to an immense library of knowledge on a device with infinite patience. “If you’re not comfortable with your child having a smartphone and just Googling whatever they want, know that basically you’re providing that opportunity with a smart speaker,” says Professor York. Every child is different, but if you have a child between the ages of 4 and 8, you’ll probably want to be in the room with them when they use a smart speaker for the first few times, supervising them. You’ll also want to use parental control to supervise what apps they’re installing, and check in with what queries all your children are asking the smart speaker.

Model Good Behavior Yourself

The nature of how we talk to smart speakers can be confusing to young children. “I’ve heard of children barking orders at teachers, because they’re used to saying, ‘Alexa, turn on the light,’” says Professor York. Kids ultimately understand the difference between a smart speaker and another person — if you have a pet in your home, they’re able to understand that the way we speak to a dog or cat is different from how we talk to a friend or teacher. But for parents, that may mean altering how we use smart speakers, as well. “I think the most simple answer is treating a smart speaker like [you would] your grandmother. How would you ask your grandmother to turn on the light, or turn on the timer?” says Professor York.

Understand the Benefits and Limitations of a Smart Speaker

Smart speakers, for many parents, offer a middle ground between handing their kid a tablet and never allowing them any screen-time. “I have a colleague whose research found that the most inactive your brain ever stays is when you’re watching TV or a video on an iPad,” says Professor York. “Obviously, playing in the backyard is still the best, but a smart speaker gets you away from that. There are ‘create your own adventure’ skills and homework skills and whatnot that can be fun. At least you have to interact with it some way instead of just hitting play on YouTube.”

By the same token, while a smart speaker can read your kid a story, it’s no replacement for your doing the same thing. “If I’m reading a book to my child, I may point out, ‘Oh look, what’s hiding behind the well?’ and she’ll see there’s a kitty there, and we’ll talk about animals for a while,” says Professor Dell. Alexa or the Google Assistant will likely never be able to do that.

Ultimately, smart speakers, like all of the technology we allow into our homes, require parents to think and navigate. “It’s always a matter of choices,” says Professor Dell. “I don’t demonize any type of technology. But also technology can never replace having to spend a lot of time interacting with your child, which is ultimately what’s best for helping them develop.”

A Parent’s Guide to Not Feeling So Bad About Using Alexa