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

Whether it’s reminding potty-training toddlers to go to the bathroom, telling bedtime stories, or being used as a “conversation partner”, voice-activated smart devices are used to help raise children almost from the day they are born.

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

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

A key concern is that children are attributing human characteristics and behavior to devices that are, Arora said, “essentially a list of formed words and sounds mixed together to form a sentence.”

Children anthropomorphize and then imitate the devices, copying their inability to alter their tone, volume, emphasis, or intonation. Another problem is that machines don’t automatically wait for 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 request.”

There are also problems with recognizing different accents. “If 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 may be exposed to something inappropriate,” he said, citing an example where a 10-year-old girl was exposed to an online challenge where she was told to touch a live electrical outlet with a coin.

“These devices don’t understand what they’re saying,” he said. “All they’re doing is regurgitating information in response to a narrow query, which he might have misunderstood anyway, with no real understanding of security or who’s listening.”

Dr Ádám Miklósi, who recently published a study showing that using smartphones and tablets “rewires” children’s brains with long-term effects, called the research “significant” and said he More needed to be done to get companies to take the problem seriously.

“At the moment these devices are very primitive because the people developing them don’t care about human interaction or their impact on children’s development,” he said.

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

But Dr. Caroline Fitzpatrick, Canada Research Chair in Children’s Use of Digital Media and Its Implications for Promoting Unity: An Ecosystem Approach, said she thinks it doesn’t. there was no need to worry.

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

“A child who was already shy or who spent too much time on their device could develop poor social skills and social skills compared to their peers, as well as difficulty using basic politeness and poor skills in nonverbal communication – such as interrupting and not making eye contact,” she said. “These children would have lower quality relationships with peers, teachers, and family members and increased social isolation.

“But as long as parents stick to the recommended limits for children and get good interaction from their caregivers and peers, I don’t think there’s any cause for alarm,” a- she added.

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