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It has happened: My children want their own smart speakers.

It’s not surprising. I’m a journalist covering tech and music, so I feel obliged to understand these devices that loom large in my work. There’s an Amazon Echo in my home office, an Apple HomePod in the kitchen, and a Google Home Mini in the bedroom.

My sons watch me talking to Alexa, Siri, and Google Assistant and quickly follow suit: If they’re not dashing into the office to request “Man’s Not Hot” before running away cackling, they’re enlisting the HomePod to do their math homework or pestering Google with inappropriate questions about bottoms.

The same phenomenon is happening in millions of homes around the world. Research firm Futuresource estimates that 26.6 million smart speakers shipped in 2017, with 89 percent of those sold to Americans and Brits. By January this year, one in six Americans owned a smart speaker. Another research company, Canalys, expects shipments to grow to 56.3 million in 2018 as the competition between Amazon, Google, and Apple heats up.

It’s been fascinating to watch my children’s reaction to smart speakers and their voice-control features. Like many adults — even tech-savvy ones — my mode of interaction is “Alexa?” (or “Hey Siri?” or “Hey Google?”), and then a pause before giving some voice command. It’s a pause that, I think, still signifies disbelief. Can I really talk to a device and have it understand me? Do I need to speak slowly and leave gaps?

There’s no pause when my children speak to a smart speaker. It’s a small difference, but noteworthy because of their confidence. Even toddlers can work out a touchscreen interface. They’re not thinking about the interaction with technology: They’re just doing it.

And now they want to do it with their own smart speakers. It’s not just because I’m a bit touchy about them talking to “my” speakers, whether it’s messing up my Spotify recommendations or teaching Google’s advertising algorithms that I have a keen and regularly voiced interest in “smelly bums” and “big poos.”

No, my sons want a device of their own that responds to their voice commands, and they only see the good in this. Which is where I come in as the big bad parent, fretting about privacy and personal data on their behalf. And, yes, this as a man who sleeps two feet from a Google-made listening device.


No Mattel, My Children Are Not “Assets”

Concerns around children and smart speakers have already blown up into a controversy. In 2017, Mattel unveiled a device called Aristotle that promised parents it would “use the most advanced AI-driven technology to make it easier for them to protect, develop, and nurture the most important asset in their home — their children.”

That included the ability to teach ABCs and 1-2-3s to toddlers, help slightly older children with their homework and play music or voice-controlled games, and teach foreign languages to tweens, among other features.

By the autumn, a 15,000-signature petition organized by two U.S. groups, the Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood (CCFC) and the Story of Stuff Project, was calling for Mattel to can the Aristotle before it even went on sale, while U.S. politicians were asking the company pointed questions about what data the speaker would be gathering on its young users and how it would be stored and shared.

“This new product has the potential to raise serious privacy concerns as Mattel can build an in-depth profile of children and their family. It appears that never before has a device had the capability to so intimately look into the life of a child,” the petition stated. Less than a fortnight later, Mattel canceled the device.

Since then, the CCFC has continued its efforts to call out devices and toys that may infringe children’s privacy, from smartwatches and robot companions to Facebook’s plans for a Messenger Kids app for families to use for chatting.

If we’re worried about smart devices made for children, shouldn’t we be even more worried about children using devices meant for adults? Yet both Amazon and Google have explicitly positioned their smart speakers as family friendly devices through the “skills” (Amazon) and “actions” (Google) that are these devices’ equivalent of smartphone apps.

In August 2017, Amazon launched a series of “kid skills”for its Alexa voice-assistant and Echo speakers, working with Sesame Street, Nickelodeon, and other companies to create them. Parental consent was part of the process of getting them to work; by October, the company was offering a $250,000 prize fund for developers who made the best examples.

Google followed suit in October 2017, releasing more than 50 children’s games, activities, and stories for its Google Assistant and Google Home, inviting kids to say, “OK Google. Play Mickey Mouse Adventure / Talk to What’s My Justice League Super Hero / Play Sports Illustrated Kids Trivia,” and other actions.


My, Um, Parenting Strategy

I’m fascinated by the potential of all this: family games (there’s already an educational board game where Alexa plays compère), interactive stories, and learning experiences, for example. There will be developers who have made it their mission to ignite children’s imaginations through voice-controlled experiences, and I’d love my boys to be able to benefit.

I also have a creeping sense that voice, as much as touch, will be a very important interface in the future. Isn’t it a good thing if my sons are learning how to interact with these kinds of devices now to prepare them for whatever machines they’ll be speaking to as adults? Preparation can also involve learning about how these devices’ privacy settings work and how the tech companies behind them deal with our personal data.

For this parent, that starts with learning those lessons myself. I recommend starting with this Wired article about what Echo and Google Home do with your voice data, or this Gizmodo piece about locking down privacy settings on your devices. CNET has a good primer on HomePod settings to change if you have one in a family setting.

Getting on top of the privacy settings, and then exploring what these smart speakers and their skills/actions can do with my children — rather than simply buying them a bedroom device and letting them figure it out — is the path I’ve chosen for now.

This is part of my slightly fuzzy parenting strategy where there are some things I don’t want my kids doing on their own just yet, but I want to talk about and experience them together ahead of that time to encourage healthy (and sometimes skeptical) attitudes toward technology on their part.

It’s the same with Snapchat and Instagram: apps my sons are still too young for, yet they know and are curious about them. Rather than a blanket don’t-even-mention-them ban on these apps, I’m showing them my feeds, letting them play with the filters and silly effects, and talking about how these apps work and some of the pitfalls to avoid — from judging your value by your number of likes to having snaps go public that you thought were private.

It takes time and effort, but that’s been my experience with pretty much everything when it comes to responsible parenting.

So, sorry, kids, no smart speaker by your bedside just yet. But this is a new technology we will continue to experience together as it develops and have the conversations that will hopefully help you make the right decisions about these devices as you grow older.