Voice assistants could ‘hinder children’s social and cognitive development’

From reminding toddlers to potty train to go to the toilet, to telling them bedtime stories, to being used as a “conversation partner,” voice-activated smart devices are being used almost from the day they are born to help children parent help.

But the rapid rise of voice assistants, including Google Home, Amazon Alexa and Apple’s Siri, could have long-term implications for children’s social and cognitive development, particularly their empathy, compassion and critical thinking skills, according to new research.

“Multiple effects on children include inappropriate responses, hindering social development, and hindering learning opportunities,” said Anmol Arora, co-author of a study published in the journal Archives of Disease in Childhood.

A key concern is that children attribute human characteristics and behaviors to devices, which Arora says are “essentially a list of trained words and sounds that are stitched together into a sentence.”

The children humanize and then mimic the devices by imitating their failure to change tone, volume, intonation, or intonation. Another problem is that the machines do not automatically expect children to say “please” or “thank you”.

Devices are also limited in the types of questions they can answer. “As a result,” Arora said. “Children will learn very narrow forms of questioning and always in the form of a demand.”

There are also problems in recognizing different accents. “When a child is particularly young, they may not be able to pronounce certain words correctly, and then there is a risk that their words will be misinterpreted and they will be exposed to something inappropriate,” he said, giving an example of a 10 -year-old girl was subjected to an online challenge in which she was told to touch a live outlet with a coin.

“These devices don’t understand what they’re saying,” he said. “All they do is recap some information in response to a narrow-minded question that could be misunderstood anyway, with no real understanding of security or who’s listening.”

dr Ádám Miklósi, who recently published a study showing that smartphone and tablet use “rewires” children’s brains with long-term effects, called the research “important” and said more needs to be done for companies to do this take the subject seriously.

“Right now, these devices are very primitive because the people designing them don’t care about human interactions or their impact on child development,” he said.

“You know how adults use these devices, but the way kids use them and the impact they have on kids is very different,” he added. “We need a lot more research and ethical guidelines for their use by children”

But dr Caroline Fitzpatrick, of Canada’s Research Chair in Children’s Digital Media Use and Its Impact on Fostering Coexistence: An Ecosystemic Approach, said she thought there was little cause for concern.

“It is true that children need rich context and cues to learn and develop vocabulary that they currently cannot achieve through interactions with technology because it provides very little information, tools and context,” she said.

“A child who was already shy or who spent too much time with their device might develop lower quality social skills and interpersonal skills than their peers, as well as difficulty using basic politeness and poor non-verbal communication skills – like interrupting and not making eye contact “, she said. “These children would have poorer relationships with peers, teachers and family members, and increased social isolation.

“But as long as parents stick to the recommended limits for children and they get a healthy amount of interaction from their caregivers and peers, I don’t think there should be anything to worry about,” she added.

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