Are Alexa and Siri making our children DUMB?

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Alexa, Siri and Google Home might be making children less intelligent and socially stunted, it was claimed today.

The voice-controlled devices — popular in homes across the world — allow users to ask questions and receive answers.

But this may impede youngster’s learning skills, critical thinking and empathy, says Dr Anmol Arora, a researcher at Cambridge University.

Dr Anmol Arora, a researcher at Cambridge University, says this is down to the tech only offering short and concise answers to questions, inappropriate responses and being unable to give feedback on their social skills. Pictured: Amazon Echo

Dr Anmol Arora, a researcher at Cambridge University, says this is down to the tech only offering short and concise answers to questions, inappropriate responses and being unable to give feedback on their social skills. Pictured: Amazon Echo

HOW COULD SMART DEVICES AFFECT CHILDREN’S DEVELOPMENT? 

Alexa, Siri and Google Home might be making children less intelligent and socially stunted, according to an artificial intelligence expert.

The voice-controlled devices — which allow users to ask questions and receive answers — may impede youngster’s learning skills, critical thinking and empathy.

Dr Anmol Arora, a researcher at Cambridge University, says this is down to the tech only offering short and concise answers to questions, inappropriate responses and being unable to give feedback on their social skills. 

On top of his concerns, the tech has previously come under fire after studies showed just how reliant children were on them.

One found that children speak to their Alexa, Siri or Google Home more than their grandparents.

Results from a survey of 1,200 six to 11-year-olds in the UK show that they youngsters use the devices every day — compared to speaking to their grandparents once every 10 days.

The same poll found that nearly three quarters admitted that they didn’t say ‘please’ or ‘thank you’ when speaking to the smart speakers.

And one in three said they turned to their device for answers rather than their parents. 

Additionally, parents have reported turning to the devices to read their children bedtime stories. 

Neuroscience and education experts have raised concerns that the tech risks becoming a ‘substitute for human interaction’. 

Writing in the Archives of Disease in Childhood, Dr Arora warned that the devices may make youngsters less intelligent. 

Children can ask a question and receive a ‘concise’ and ‘specific’ answer — but this goes against how they traditionally learn and absorb information, he said.

For comparison, when an adult responds to a youngster’s question, they can add context, explain the limits of their knowledge and unpick the child’s reasoning.

But smart devices can’t replicate this process, Dr Arora argued.

And easy access to answers may result in children not searching for the information themselves — a process required for them to learn critical thinking and logical reasoning, he said.

The tech may also give children inappropriate and potentially dangerous responses. 

Dr Arora pointed to reports of Amazon’s Alexa telling a 10-year-old to plug in a phone charge halfway and touch a coin to the exposed prongs.

He noted that it is difficult to monitor responses and enforce ‘robust parental controls on such devices without severely affecting their functionality’.

The devices also raise privacy concerns by recording children’s conversations, according to Dr Arora.

On top of potentially being inappropriate for children, the tech may hinder their social development, he said.

This is because the voice assistants can’t teach children how to behave politely, because there is no need to say ‘please’ or ‘thank you’ or use a considerate tone of voice, Dr Arora said.

He noted: ‘The lack of ability to engage in non-verbal communication makes use of the devices a poor method of learning social interaction.

‘While in normal human interactions, a child would usually receive constructive feedback if they were to behave inappropriately, this is beyond the scope of a smart device.’

And while some research suggests the voice assistants can tackle loneliness among adults, this may not apply to children.

He noted: ‘This is particularly important at a time when children might already have had social development impaired as a result of Covid restrictions and when [they] might have been spending more time isolated with smart devices at home.’

Dr Arora noted that the devices benefit the population by providing quick information, assisting with daily actives and offering companionship to lonely adults.

But he called for ‘urgent research’ into the long-term consequence for children who interact with the tech.

He added: ‘Interacting with the devices at a crucial stage in social and emotional development might have long-term consequences on empathy, compassion, and critical thinking.’

But other experts hit back at the conclusions.

Dr Amy Orben, a brain scientist at the University of Cambridge, said: ‘This academic paper does not provide any novel evidence about the impact of voice assistants on children.

‘It is an opinion piece, and its argument rests largely on news reports and anecdotal evidence, citing extremely little scientific evidence.

‘Most concerns that are highlighted by this article are only backed up by news reports, and not by scientific evidence. Scientifically, little is known about the impact of voice assistants on children.

‘The impacts of voice assistants are probably mixed and very dependent on how they are used by children.’

A spokesperson for Amazon said: ‘Alexa is designed to provide accurate and helpful information. 

‘Many of our customers have told us that Amazon Kids on Alexa, Echo Dot Kids and Kids Skills are helping their children, including those with autism and ADHD. 

‘Our Amazon Kids service on Alexa provides parental controls which help parents manage the ways their children interact with technology and serves age appropriate content. 

‘We also offer polite mode which encourages children to say “please” and “thank you” when speaking to Alexa. 

‘We believe voice technology will be a big part of the future and our goal is to provide an educational experience for kids combined with controls that give parents peace of mind.’

Voice assistant devices have previously come under fire after studies showed just how reliant children were on them.

One found that children speak to their Alexa, Siri or Google Home more than their grandparents.

Results from a survey of 1,200 six to 11-year-olds in the UK show that they youngsters use the devices every day — compared to speaking to their grandparents once every 10 days.

The same poll found that nearly three quarters admitted that they didn’t say ‘please’ or ‘thank you’ when speaking to the smart speakers.

And one in three said they turned to their device for answers rather than their parents. 

Additionally, parents have reported turning to the devices to read their children bedtime stories. 

Neuroscience and education experts have raised concerns that the tech risks becoming a ‘substitute for human interaction’.

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