From privacy concerns to kids believing the device to be their ‘friend’, the use of smart speakers in the home can greatly impact the family dynamic
Back in 2020 the Central Statistics Office found that one in five Irish homes had a “virtual assistant” in the form of a smart speaker like Amazon Echo or Google Home. That figure rises to over one in four households with families. Estimates at the same time expected the figure to rise to 50pc by 2022.
The sharp rise in smart speakers in family homes raises a lot of questions about how children interact with them and what impact they have on the family dynamic. Given that last week heralded Safer Internet Day, it is also important to consider how families understand how these devices can impact their privacy too.
In one study in Northwestern University in the US, in 2019, researchers explored what ways young children (aged five and six) interacted with smart speakers (specifically a Google Home Mini). They tracked the children’s and parents’ interactions over a two-week period, using the log files that included the raw sound files the device had recorded. They also interviewed the children in the family at the end of the two-week period to see how they understood what the device was and how it worked.
Children mostly used the devices to ask questions and sought facts about the world. Interestingly, when they were asked about the devices, they mostly viewed the devices as smarter than them. When asked how the devices worked, children mostly explained it, “I think she looks things up on her phone”, referencing the prior awareness they had of text-based fact-checking on phones but also ascribing a human element to the device.
Another US study from 2020 found, similarly, that children attributed a human-like identity to the smart speaker and tried to engage in conversation with it, using it mostly to seek knowledge or answer questions. This differs from how parents interacted inasmuch as parents used the device primarily to play music or control other devices in the home.
The parents in this study expressed apprehension about their children becoming dependent on a machine for tasks that are the parents’ responsibility. For example, one parent reported, “My child believes that his best friend is requesting him to clean the room and so he gladly agrees. Even though I am guilty of taking advantage of this, I worry about the involvement of technology in a parent-child relationship. I should be able myself to get my child to do what is good for him.”
Parents worry about their children’s attachment to the machine, as exemplified by one parent who reported, “I realise my daughter thinks she KNOWSSS Google Home, as in ‘know it like a person’. I am guilty of using it to my benefit. But it’s creepy that she treats a device that I installed in my house like a friend.”
Indeed, one of the children (aged six) described, “Meet Ella [pointing at Google Home, which is adorned with a silk scarf]. She talks to me when I say, ‘Ok Google.’ She is the one who plays sleep music for me and plays games with me. She also remembers things for me, so I don’t forget anything. If I want, I can call her to visit me as well. I like her.”
Parents also worry about the impacts that voice-based interactions could have on their children’s behaviour and conversational style in daily life. As another parent described, “If I do not listen to what my son is saying, he will just start shouting in an aggressive tone. He thinks, as Google responds to such a tone, I would too.”
Beyond these concerns, researchers have also found that users of smart speakers buy them primarily for convenience. They don’t often enable the privacy controls, and rarely review or delete the information recorded and held by the speaker company. Those who adopt this technology and welcome it into their home tend to trust that the companies providing the service will protect their data and not misuse it.
The same research shows that users of smart speakers aren’t fully clear about the fact that, when triggered, the device is continuously recording everything that is being said and sending that live audio data to the speaker company for processing and storage. For example, nearly three-quarters of the participants in a study didn’t switch the device off even for sensitive conversations.
Smart speakers which “listen” all the time are no doubt here to stay, like smartphones and much other technology. However, the convenience they may offer to be able to maintain lists, listen to music, check the weather, set alarms, place orders for food or groceries, play games and so on needs to be matched by an awareness that children may see them as human and may adopt them as another member of the family, but this “family member” is sharing family conversations with big-data companies.