Parent Alert: Worried about Alexa? 4 Tips to Protect Your Kids
Every couple of months, I see a new article being shared around my social networks about the possible dangers of voice assistants, like Amazon’s Alexa. But many of these articles contain a lot of speculation without a lot of experience, especially in the area of kids using voice assistants. Additionally, these devices are designed with a single adult user in mind and don’t often take into account the family dynamic. As a married mom with four kids, I offer you my perspective on what we should actually worry about when it comes to Alexa and kids.
Why should you care what I have to say? Well, my husband worked for Amazon on an Alexa team for two years. (He no longer works for Amazon.) As a family, we were early adopters of the device and now have an Alexa device in almost every room of our home. I have several years of real experience having our four kids (ages 3-11) use a voice assistant. From our family’s personal experience, here are the things to worry about and not worry about with a voice assistant in your home.
What is Alexa?
If you aren’t familiar with her, Alexa is a virtual voice assistant produced by Amazon, similar to Siri on the iPhone, Cortana on Microsoft devices, or the Google assistant (whom we call “the Google lady” in our home for lack of an official name). A voice assistant is constantly listening for a wake word (usually their name). When the name is detected, the device records the request that follows and sends that recording to a cloud AI to identify keywords to figure out what you want it to do.
Amazon’s Alexa is available through Echo speaker devices, as well as upcoming wearables like rings, headphones, and glasses. You can also download the Alexa app on your smartphone or computer or use it through Amazon’s Kindle tablets.
Worry about music apps
What could be simpler than allowing your kids to play their favorite songs via voice assistant without having to borrow your phone or computer? (We’ve been without a CD player since an anonymous six-year-old filled our last one with Vaseline.) In many ways, this is an ideal use for Alexa, allowing kids access to a vast variety of their favorite Disney soundtracks and Casper Babypants songs for free without a screen to distract them.
I didn’t anticipate that when my kids got bored with the songs they knew, they would begin asking Alexa to play random words (“Alexa, play TNT.” “Alexa, play banana.”), just to see if they could find a new song. Sometimes, this resulted in discovering a new favorite song and sometimes this resulted in AC/DC’s song TNT blasting through my house. I also didn’t anticipate their friends coming over and feeling free to play songs on our devices that had language or sexual content. Not all parents have the same standards about appropriate music for children.
For months, all I could do was turn off inappropriate content when I heard it and talk with my kids about our standards for good music and the dangers of playing random songs. But in 2018, Amazon finally created explicit filters for music services. The filters work for Spotify and Amazon music, but may not work with some other services, especially live radio. The way they work is a little wonky (on Spotify, Alexa will say she’s going to play the song and then just not play it), but they have improved my experience with music on Alexa. However, they only cover music labelled as explicit, so you’ll still need to use your judgement to guide your children.
Don’t worry about communication and drop-ins
Some people worry that Alexa will allow people to listen to your children or communicate with them. From my experience, this fear is unfounded. Alexa’s communication system has been a safe way for our kids to communicate with friends and family. In fact, Alexa has simply replaced the traditional family landline in our (cord-cutting) home.
Alexa pulls the contacts from your phone to establish which of your friends and family have Alexas. Our kids can send messages to grandma or their cousins anytime without needing to use a screen or borrow a phone. The grandparents use this feature to sing Happy Birthday to our kids and say hello to them. I can send a message to the neighbor’s house when it’s time for the kids to come home without having to leave the spaghetti boiling on the stove. No one off the approved contacts list can call in, though you can dial out from Alexa.
A “drop in” is the Alexa term for a live phone call, as opposed to the recorded messages we usually send. I use dropping-in as an intercom system to call kids down to breakfast without resorting to yelling up the stairs. There is a clear audible noise when a drop-in happens, and the device stays lit up as long as the call is active, so no one can listen in secretively. Drop-ins can only happen from your contacts, although we’ve never had anyone outside our home use it. It’s simple to block drop-ins from outside your home if you are worried about your contacts calling unexpectedly, but it’s really no worse than a ringing phone.
Worry about skills
Amazon calls the third-party apps you can enable on your Alexa “skills.” They vary from popular game shows (“Deal or No Deal?”) to interactive adventures (“The Magic Door”) to active games (“The Floor is Lava,” great for burning off kid energy) to obnoxious sound generators (my kids are fond of several air horn skills) to practical (the “You Need a Budget” skill allows you to check your budget with your voice). To access these skills, you say “Alexa, open (name of skill).” Anyone can make one--my kids have even tried building their own, though they quickly lost interest.
We had a few interesting incidents in our first year when Alexa misinterpreted things our children said and led them down strange paths into inappropriate skills. Since then, Amazon has become better at understanding kids and has largely cleaned up the skills store from the free-for-all it used to be. Though there are still a few sexually themed skills available, it’s a much smaller percentage than when we initially started using our Echoes.
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While inappropriate skills do exist in Alexa, it’s difficult for kids to accidentally come across them because there’s not an easy way to search for new apps, so unless they know the name of the skill already, they probably won’t find it. Most of our skills come from recommendations from friends and articles. However, if you use Alexa on a Kindle device, the screen makes skills searchable. I disabled Alexa on my kids’ Kindles because they kept finding new obnoxious games, but they could just as easily have found something more sinister.
Another thing to worry about is screen-less video game addiction. I have found my 11-year-old playing what was essentially a video game on Alexa when he’s supposed to be having non-screen time. Alexa games are pretty limited in their interaction, so they aren’t as tempting as screen based games, but to a kid who really wants video game time he isn’t allowed, they can become a crutch to avoid finding out what else there is to do in the world.
Don’t worry about social skills
Another popular hand-wringing topic on the internet is whether Alexa is teaching your kids to be rude and destroy their social skills. Obviously, Alexa is a computer and she responds to direct commands with or without please. She never tires of playing the same game over and over. Experts and pundits worry that kids will have less compassion, patience, and empathy for human beings as a result of interacting with her at a young age.
In the end, Alexa is still a computer, and my children treat her as such. She is a toy, not a person, and I haven’t seen any noticeable difference in my kids’ politeness to people since her introduction. They quickly learn the things she is useful for (turning on the lights, asking how to spell words, playing songs and simple games) and what she is not (conversation). I imagine that if kids used Alexa to the exclusion of talking to people, there could be a significant impact, but this is the same worry as for all screens and nothing exclusive to Alexa or other voice assistants.
Maybe worry about voiceprint
Many articles express uneasiness about Alexa making and storing recordings of your voice. I used to shrug off such worries. Since my husband worked as a programmer on Alexa, I knew that programmers reviewed these recordings to help them understand why Alexa got answers wrong, not to spy on anyone. My husband attempted to find recordings of our specific children through his work system, and it was not easily accessible except by an on-call individual and that access was limited to 24 hours. The system will not allow someone to stalk your family. If you don’t want someone to hear what got recorded, perhaps by accident, Amazon is making it easier to delete these. But the presence of these recordings has never bothered me.
However, some recent developments have me reconsidering this. Amazon has started using these recordings to create a “voice print” tracking system. Your voice print is like a fingerprint, the unique combination of vocal features that identify your way of speaking. Amazon uses this to offer personalized suggestions to all the people who use your device, including children and guests.
Recent reporting suggests that if you speak near an Alexa device, Amazon can use that recording to locate you and possibly give that information to others. With Alexa devices becoming ubiquitous not only on phones but on wearable devices, we may soon be trackable anywhere we speak. This service is marketed as a way to locate a family member on a trip, but it’s easy to see how this service could be abused to give the location of your children to dangerous people. I feel a bit more uncomfortable about the ways this could be abused, so I turned off turned off voice profiles in our Alexa devices and will be keeping my eye on further developments.
Summing it up
In the end, keeping your kids safe on new technology like voice assistants is about personal judgement. You have to think about what purposes these devices serve and if that is worth managing the downsides. I hope reading about my experience can help inform your decision about how much to allow this technology into your family.
4 Tips for Using Alexa Safely
Here are some Alexa settings you might follow up on: