Voice & Parenting (Moms' Perception of Voice & Parenting VLandscape Research)
Voice-activated assistants like Alexa and Google Home offer many advantages for parents and kids alike, including providing both education and amusement for the children and offering hands-free options to busy mothers. However, some mothers are concerned that these devices may influence the way their children think and interact with others, while others have raised concerns about privacy. Below is a deep-dive into both the benefits and the potential pitfalls of the rise of voice technology, particularly from the perspective of the mothers.
PARENTING AND VOICE TECHNOLOGY
Tech Age Kid published an article last year comparing Alexa and Google Home in regard to their kid-friendliness. While both are designed for adults, children also love using them. The author notes that both devices were able to understand their children, ages 8 and 10. This is potentially problematic because both have very limited parental controls: Alexa restricts Amazon purchases by requiring a PIN, Google Home allows you to restrict explicit songs, and both devices avoid using swear words, "but you can certainly ask questions and get responses that some parents would consider inappropriate." And of course, there are the usual concerns that voice technology, like other technologies that keep children "glued to screens," will prevent children from learning important interpersonal skills.
Despite these potential problems, parents and families have been the drivers of early adoption of the technology, and therefore major influencers on its direction. Publicis Media researchers note that voice-activated devices act as extensions to the parents' own pools of knowledge, making them more effective in answering the complex demands, and complex questions, of children. They further note that these devices are supplanting not only TV and radio, but even smartphones as the family's main source for news, weather, traffic conditions, and so forth. Both Alexa and Google Home are likewise becoming the go-to resource for curious children. In the words of one Washington Post reporter, "Parents (including this reporter) have noticed that queries previously made to adults are shifting to assistants, particularly for homework — spelling words, simple math, historical facts."
While Alexa falls behind Google Home on some technical aspects which may be important to some adults (and even some children), Tech Age Kid notes that it's the better system for kids. For example, Alexa has a collection of short stories which she will tell on command, including interactive stories, and will play audio books. Alexa also allows the owner to play music from Amazon Prime, which gives parents a good selection of kid-friendly music to choose from. More recent reviews likewise find that Echo, Alexa's second generation cousin, is still ahead of Google Home on these kid-friendly features. It also comes out ahead on features built specifically around helping the parents directly, like playing sleep sounds for the baby's nap, tracking a baby's nutritional intake, providing reassuring health information to parents encountering "a new something" when the pediatrician isn't available, or even helping them to just take a few guided breaths.
Finally, Alexa's voice has a "warmth and personality" that younger children identify with. This is important because even 41% of adults start to think of their voiced devices as people, and children are even more prone to personify them. This leads to such interesting phenomena as a mother saying of Alexa, "It’s definitely become part of our lives," and then swiftly correcting herself: "She’s definitely part of our lives."
Of course there is a potential problem with personifying our devices in that "this emotional connection sets up expectations for children that devices can’t or weren’t designed to meet, causing confusion, frustration and even changes in the way kids talk or interact with adults," according to Allison Druin, a University of Maryland professor who specializes in children's use of technology. These concerns have been echoed by many mothers after watching how their children interact with the devices.
MOTHERS AND VOICE TECHNOLOGY
Millennials are well-known for their tech-savvyness, but a 2016 Influence Central study shows that Millennial women become even more engaged when they become mothers. They are more likely than non-mothers to own a smartphone (95% to 87%) and to prefer text over talking (81% to 77%). More than 90% use the internet to find fun activities and 87% to find parenting tips and advice, and nearly 70% use a voice-activated assistant "to search for information about local places on a weekly basis." Voice technology makes information even more readily available, which is extremely important for busy mothers. As one mother explains, "If I’m on my phone, it’s taking time away from cooking or doing something with the boys," but the convenience of Google Home frees up her hands, her eyes, and her time. Children also enjoy this ease of access, using voice technology for everything from playing music to doing research for school papers, making them more independent and freeing up even more time for Mom. As one mother explains, "Sometimes the way you think is faster than when you type. The ability to ask gets them more excited... it’s more engaging."
However, not every interaction with a voice assistant is positive, with both mothers and fathers reporting the device interfering in their interactions with their children, according to a University of Michigan study: 48% of parents report that voice-activated assistants cause interruptions in their interactions with their children three or more times a day, 24% say twice, and 17% say that it happens about once a day, with only 11% reporting no interruptions.
Many mothers have concerns about how voice devices affect their children's behavior and stunt their child's social development. As one puts it, "Alexa will put up with just about anything. She has a remarkable tolerance for annoying behavior, and she certainly doesn’t care if you forget your please and thank yous." These social concerns are far from universal, with other mothers believing that their children, even at ages as young as five know the difference between a computer and a person. Some compare it to having a pet in the house, where the kids are prone to anthropomorphize it, but know the difference between how they treat the dog and treat their mother.
Other mothers worry about the aforementioned lack of child safeties enabling their children to rebel in new ways: "Will my son use Alexa as a mechanism for getting what he wants in sneaky and devious ways, like ordering a bike, getting answers to homework questions, or in way worse ways I haven’t even thought about?" And of course many have raised privacy concerns, especially when their kids are used to just asking the device whatever they want whenever they want.
These concerns don't only appear anecdotally, but in survey research. According to Amobee, there are distinct patterns that emerge in "online chatter" (e.g., views, likes, and shares) when it comes to voice-activated assistants: Regarding the Echo, 9% is about privacy concerns, 13% mention children and 6% is "distinctly related" to kids. Likewise, 10% of Google Home chatter is related to children.
Writing for MIT's Technology Review, Rachel Metz takes a more balanced perspective. Regarding the above concerns, she says, "Some of that may happen. It seems more likely, though, that as with many technologies before this, the utility of digital assistants will outweigh their drawbacks... I don’t think we have to be worried about it or paranoid about it, but I do think it’s something to be watchful for."
Voice technology, and particularly Amazon's Alexis and Echo, provides many useful tools for parents and children alike. However, there are concerns among many (not all) mothers that their children's tendency to anthropomorphize these devices could lead to delayed maturation of their social skills, new ways to rebel, and breaches of the family's privacy. Nevertheless, even those who raise these concerns find that the benefits of voice-activated assistants far outweigh the potential pitfalls, and nearly 70% of Millennial mothers use a voice-activated assistant on a weekly basis or more. Of the two major players, Alexis has the clear edge among families with children, though many have both Alexis and Google Home in their houses to take advantage of the strongest features of each.