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Why Alexa and Siri may damage kids’ social and emotional development

"In normal human interactions, a child would usually receive constructive feedback if they were to behave inappropriately, this is beyond the scope of a smart device."

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By Mark Waghorn via SWNS

Smart assistants such as Alexa and Siri are bad for children's social and emotional development, according to new research.

Most children's smartphones have a voice app, such as Amazon's or Apple's. But they may impede critical thinking, empathy, compassion and learning skills.

Co-author Dr. Anmol Arora, an expert in artificial intelligence (AI) at the University of Cambridge, said: "The lack of ability to engage in non-verbal communication makes use of the devices a poor method of learning social interaction.

"While in normal human interactions, a child would usually receive constructive feedback if they were to behave inappropriately, this is beyond the scope of a smart device."

Preliminary research on the use of voice assistants as social companions for lonely adults is encouraging. But it's not at all clear if this also applies to children.

Dr. Arora said: "This is particularly important at a time when children might already have had social development impaired as a result of COVID-19 restrictions and when they might have been spending more time isolated with smart devices at home."

Young man sitting on sofa speaking activating small portable wireless speaker asking virtual voice assistant on table at smart home. Mini bluetooth stereo gadget for sound digital assistance concept.
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It's been suggested the gadgets can act as 'friends' - boosting reading and communication skills.

But their 'human' sounding voices - based on advanced AI - have prompted concerns about possible long-term effects on youngsters' brains at a crucial time in life.

Three broad areas of concern include inappropriate responses, impeding social development and hindering learning, said Dr. Arora.

He cited an example of one device suggesting a ten-year-old should try touching a live plug with a coin.

Dr. Arora said: "It is difficult to enforce robust parental controls on such devices without severely affecting their functionality."

Young african woman user holding mobile phone in hand speak on speakerphone using virtual digital voice recognition assistant search on smartphone record audio message, mobile app ai tech assistance.
(Ground Picture via Shutterstock)

Privacy issues have also arisen in respect of the recording of private conversations, said the researchers.

The devices can't teach how to behave politely because there's no expectation of a "please" or "thank you" - and no need to consider the tone of voice.

They are designed to search for requested information and provide a concise, specific answer.

But this may hinder traditional processes by which children learn and absorb information.

When children ask questions, the adult can request contextual information, explain the limitations of their knowledge and probe the child’s reasoning - a process voice assistants can’t replicate.

Searching for information is also an important learning experience, which teaches critical thinking and logical reasoning.

Dr. Arora added: "The rise of voice devices has provided great benefit to the population.

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

"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."

The findings were published in the journal Archives of Disease in Childhood.

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