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Use of voice-controlled devices ‘might have long-term consequences for children’

Voice-controlled smart devices could have “long-term consequences on empathy, compassion and critical thinking” among children, researchers have said as they called for more studies to examine the impact on youngsters.

There has been a rapid rise in such devices, including Google Home, Amazon Alexa and Apple’s Siri, which has prompted researchers to question whether there are psychological impacts on users.

Children can use these tools in a number of different ways, with examples given by researchers including acting as reading companions to improve reading skills and as conversation “partners” to help children improve their communication skills by challenging verbal mistakes.

But they said that the artificial intelligence driving the devices, coupled with the human-sounding voices, have attracted concerns about how they “may negatively affect children’s cognitive and social development”.

In a new opinion piece, published in the journal Archives of Disease in Childhood, academics said the concerns on the impacts of children include “inappropriate responses”, “impeding social development” and “hindering learning opportunities”.

Ananya Arora and Anmol Arora, from the University of Cambridge, said there have been concerns that children “over-anthropomorphise digital devices”, meaning they attribute human characteristics and behaviour to the devices, which is compounded by some of the language used to turn on the devices.

On the other hand there is not an automatic expectation for children using the devices to say please or thank you, nor any consideration to tone of voice by the user.

“The lack of ability to engage in non-verbal communication makes use of the devices a poor method of learning social interaction,” they wrote.

But they highlight the “magic word” function on Alexa – which uses positive reinforcement for polite manners – as an “important step in the right direction”.

On learning opportunities, the authors question whether the instantaneous response to any question could “hinder traditional processes by which children learn and absorb information”.

They said the process of searching for information is an “important learning experience” which teaches critical thinking and logical reasoning.

But they said this concern is not new as similar opinions were raised when the internet and search engines became widely available.

The researchers also highlighted some of the inappropriate responses given to children, including a device “suggesting that a 10-year-old girl should try touching a live plug with a coin”.

The pair also raise concerns over privacy issues, such as “an episode in which a device inadvertently recorded a private conversation and emailed it to a random phone contact”.

“The rise of voice devices has provided great benefit to the population,” they wrote

“Their abilities to provide information rapidly, assist with daily activities and act as a social companion to lonely adults are both important and useful.

“However, urgent research is required into the long-term consequences for children interacting with such devices.

“Interacting with the devices at a crucial stage in social and emotional development might have long-term consequences on empathy, compassion and critical thinking.”

Commenting on the paper, Dr Amy Orben, programme leader track scientist at MRC Cognition and Brain Sciences Unit, 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.”