Voice-controlled smart devices could have ‘long-term consequences’ for children, researchers warn

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There are worries regarding how the devices “may negatively affect children’s cognitive and social development”

Voice-controlled smart devices could have “long-term consequences on empathy, compassion and critical thinking” among children, researchers have said.

A rapid rise in voice-controlled devices, including Google Home, Amazon Alexa and Apple’s Siri, has prompted researchers to question if there are any psychological impacts on users, with experts now calling for more studies to examine the impact on children.

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There are worries regarding how the devices “may negatively affect children’s cognitive and social development”There are worries regarding how the devices “may negatively affect children’s cognitive and social development”
There are worries regarding how the devices “may negatively affect children’s cognitive and social development” | Adobe

Although 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 helping children improve their communication skills, they said the artificial intelligence behind the devices and human-sounding voices have raised concerns.

There are worries regarding how the devices “may negatively affect children’s cognitive and social development”.

In a new article, 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”, which means they attribute human characteristics and behaviour to the devices.

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There is also not an automatic expectation for children using the devices to say please or thank you, or any consideration to tone of voice by the user.

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

However, they do highlight that the “magic word” function on Alexa, which uses positive reinforcement for polite manners, is an “important step in the right direction”.

The authors also question whether the instantaneous response to any question could “hinder traditional processes by which children learn and absorb information” and said the process of searching for information is an “important learning experience” which teaches critical thinking and logical reasoning.

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

The pair also raise concerns over privacy issues and some inappropriate responses given to children.

But they added that “the rise of voice devices has provided great benefit to the population”, with “their abilities to provide information rapidly, assist with daily activities and act as a social companion to lonely adults” being “both important and useful”.

However, the researchers said “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,” they added.

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