Technology and Humanity//

Can Using Alexa Have Negative Consequences on Children’s Development?

Tech experts and child psychologists have some thoughts. Here’s what to know.

Photo Credit: JGI/Jamie Gril/ Getty Images
Photo Credit: JGI/Jamie Gril/ Getty Images

While I bathe my 3-year-old daughter Marty each evening, we use Alexa to play music — usually a head-spinning rotation of her three favorite songs from Frozen. Voice commands are a luxury when your hands are wet in a bubble bath, and by not using a smartphone, we can stick to our firm no-screen-time-at-night policy. It was working out nicely, until I heard Marty having a long conversation with Alexa in her room, where she repeatedly shouted, “No, Alexa!” and aggressively explained to the gadget how it was failing to deliver on her demands. I was flummoxed. Does the commanding nature of our exchanges with A.I. encourage incivility? What if Marty starts talking to her peers and teachers that way, too? I offered a short lesson about how Alexa may not be human, but is still a tool that’s helping us and should be treated nicely. The experience made me want to throw Alexa in the recycling bin — and I’m not alone.

Several headlines recently called attention to the potential hazards of A.I. technology on youth: Wired asked, “Hey Alexa, What Are You Doing to My Kid’s Brain?”, The National wondered, “Is a Growing Reliance on Alexa and Siri Having a Detrimental Effect on Children?” and The New York Times mused, “May A.I. Help You?,” in which a source lamented: “I think my daughter is growing up in a world where you just speak what you want into the universe and it provides.”

The arguments stretching through each story run the gamut from how beneficial, benign, and/or bad the effects of A.I. will be on child development. To help you assess the stakes and manage your children’s use of these technologies in the healthiest and most productive ways, Thrive Global consulted five child psychologists, A.I. designers, and researchers to distill the pros and cons:

The upside: A.I. can facilitate learning

We’re all familiar with the benefits A.I. at-home machines offer — speedy access to information, entertainment at our beck and call, help scheduling appointments and generating to-do lists — but the technology has other, greater, advantages. A study spearheaded by Solace Shen, Ph.D., a developmental psychologist who studied human-robot interactions as a post-doctoral student at Cornell University and now works as researcher at tech firm Robinhood, showed that children could solve interpersonal conflicts — a fight over possession of a Lego ice cream cone! — with a robot serving as mediator, which suggests that “robots can facilitate the development and practice of conflict resolution skills in young children,” she says. The rewards of A.I. extend to several other forms of learning, too. Yale University’s Brian Scassellati, Ph.D., a computer science, cognitive science, and mechanical engineering professor, says that for the past five years, he’s led a large team of investigators from five different universities, in the building of Artificial Intelligence-based tutoring systems for kids that teach a wide variety of topics, including Spanish, sign language, nutrition, and how to deal with bullies. (This past summer, he published research in Science Robotics showing that robots can even improve the social skills of autistic children.) “These technologies really do have the potential to provide so much positive change,” he says.

The downside: Robots may challenge interpersonal development

But clinical psychologist Sherry Turkle, a distinguished professor at M.I.T. and author of Reclaiming Conversation: The Power of Talk in a Digital Age, who studies tech’s influence on human psychology and sociality, has a less optimistic take. She surmises that the long-term influence of at-home A.I. units on children will be harmful: “These machines are seductive and offer the wrong payoff: the illusion of companionship without the demands of friendship, the illusion of connection without the reciprocity of a mutual relationship,” she writes of robots that evince humanness like Jibo, Cozmo, and Kuri in The Washington Post. Elsewhere she’s even argued that they’ve chipped away at our children’s desire and ability to hold a conversation face-to-face in ways that foster empathy.

Developmental psychologist Susan Pinker, Ph.D., who writes the “Mind Matter” column in the Wall Street Journal and is the author of The Village Effect: How Face-to-Face Contact Can Make Us Healthier, Happier and Smarter, emphatically agrees: “What children really need is social interaction. They don’t need robots,” she stresses, “Any withdrawal of social interaction in the history of child development has proven to be a disaster — they don’t develop on schedule; their emotions don’t develop; their empathy doesn’t develop; and their language skills don’t develop,” she tells Thrive. Hundreds of studies, she adds, demonstrate that familial interactions built around the dinner table predict children’s academic success and healthy socialization. “It’s not because kids are eating broccoli,” she jokes, “it’s because they’re sitting face-to-face at the table and that time is concentrated on social interaction… time to exercise reasoning and language skills,” which, she points out, are often non-verbal. “Acquiring communication skills means eye contact and reading facial expressions. Alexa can’t provide that.”

Alexa-like technologies are a child’s notion of a “perfect parent that’s like a Stepford wife: it bends to kids’ every whim,” says Richard Freed, Ph.D., a San Francisco-based child and adolescent psychologist and author of Wired Child: Reclaiming Childhood in a Digital Age. “You can yell at it and demand entertainment from it, whenever you want.” Hearing the word “no” from others, which kids don’t hear from Alexa, Freed points out, is the chisel that forms them into civilized — and self-regulated — human beings. Like Turkle, Freed believes that devices that mimic humanness dupe underdeveloped minds into perceiving an actual relationship where there is none. “It’s going to pull kids even further away from the real world, and we’re already losing them to iPhones, iPads, and a digital life online.”

Even the A.I. designers and researchers themselves have misgivings: “The underlying concern here is twofold,” Shen says. “One, that by enacting undesirable behavior toward a human-like entity, there could be carryover effect into a child’s interaction with actual humans, and two, if a child is taught to respect a machine like a human, that could also blur the conceptual boundary between humans and these technological human-seeming entities.”

Malte Jung, Ph.D., an assistant professor in Information Science at Cornell University who oversaw Shen’s postdoctoral research, adds: “We know very little about how these systems affect how people behave toward each other, nor do we know how to design systems to assess that.”

Without definitive science, we can’t fully answer the questions we’re all wondering. “Are we making people more entitled, bossy, or rude? You can make an argument for all of these things,” Yale’s Brian Scassellati says, encouraging us to keep probing while not drawing any firm deductions until research is more conclusive.

In the meantime, while the jury is still out, the A.I. designers and researchers themselves offer tips on how to help you navigate your child’s relationship with Alexa and other voice-activated gadgets:

Use technology as an enhancement, not a replacement

Alexa should never be used as your child’s nanny or a friend, even for a short while. “The moment you’re using it as a substitute for human contact, that’s when you’re getting into potential trouble,” Scassellati says.

Talk to your child about their interactions with a robot

“Follow up with them on what they used it for and correct any misinformation,” Shen suggests, such as bits of knowledge that are incomplete or lack nuance. This practice will help steer us back to a face-to-face interaction.

Don’t avoid A.I. completely

“These entities are becoming more and more prevalent,” Shen stresses, “so being able to use them will become an essential skill for your child.”

Keep asking questions

Jung, who worries that tech interferes with boredom, a condition children should learn to overcome via their own imaginations, thinks parents — and children themselves — should keep probing the relationship between themselves and their devices: “The most important thing is to always keep the debate and discourse alive.”

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