Growing up with Alexa

In light of our discussion tomorrow of the dark side of social I decided to focus my blog today on the dark side of digital technology. What are the effects of being constantly surrounded by these intelligent devices, who are constantly listening to us. Specifically, the effects on children developing and growing up with these new advanced devices that are increasingly penetrating every aspect of our lives?

In September, the toy company Mattel received a lot of backlash on a new product it was developing, an interactive, AI gadget for children.  The device was called Aristotle and it was “designed to comfort entertain teach and assist” (Alexa, Are You Safe For My Kids?) Furthermore, it would function to displace central parenting obligations like calming crying baby or reading a bedtime story, so the child forms a genuine attachment with the Aristotle device. The device would also collect information and data from the child and store it in the cloud to continue improving machine learning, like every AI system does. However, many people were concerned about such a product and a petition with 15,000 signatures to have Mattel kill the project, and the toy manufacture compelled.


Many people clearly thought this device crossed the creepy cool line, but it sounds very familiar to a certain intelligent personal assistance that are in over 39 million homes. Google Home’s and Alexa’s are always listening to its surroundings but they both only record conversations if their trigger words are spoken. All these recordings are sent up to the cloud so the device’s AI can improve by understanding how to help you better. With both smart speakers, you have access to all the device’s recordings and have the ability to delete conversations from the company’s cloud storage.

So, what is to radically different and creepy about Mattel’s Aristotle project that separates it from the Google Home and Alexa? Are children not constant interacting with these smart speakers at home? Are kids not forming attachments to these devices? Are the interactions with Google Home and Alexa benefited or unsafe for children?

Child psychologist, Shen and Rachel Severson, have published studies about children’s relationships with AI devices, and they do have some consequences.

An interesting finding from this study is that adult’s interactions with the smart speakers are affecting the ways children believe it is appropriate to interact with other human beings. For instance, the social cognitive theory states that observation and imitation are frequent sources new behaviors. Meaning that humans instinctively imitate the actions of others. This is especially true for developing children whose conceptions of correct social interactions is based off who they see their parents interact. Many people exchange with their smart speakers by crudely shouting out demands, which the device always responds to in a polite manner. It might not seem like a big deal to be rude to a machine, but young kids “attribute human characteristics to the device, thinking that Alexa has feelings and emotions. Some kids may even think there is an actual human inside the device” (Alexa, Are You Safe For My Kids?). Therefore, parent’s interactions with their smart speaker can directly influence their social awareness. So, if a parent is trying to teach their child to say please and thank you, they too should go the extra mile and be polite and show a little gratitude to their AI devices.


On the other hand, having these devices in homes can also greatly benefit from having an outlet to explore their curiosity with and ask questions even when their parents are not around. Children are naturally motivated to investigate the world around them and the robots are a great source for children to learn facts and information from.

Hence, naturally like all technological revelations come with pros and cons—both creepy and cool aspects. However, being aware of the social implications that these new technologies may have on ourselves and on those more susceptible than us are essential in interacting with this innovations and to know when to set limitations.

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  1. I’m not sure we ever know how much technology affects children, because it’s probably decades before we know for sure. I think there is discomfort with dedicated children’s apps because the children is part of the design (and marketing), as opposed to a secondary use of something like Alexa.

  2. camcurrie99 · ·

    Interesting post. I hadn’t thought about these devices’ impacts on children but your point on how we communicate with AI assistants does make me think that children could observe and follow a bad example. While these devices certainly aren’t targeted at children specifically, there are indeed some Echo Skills that are targeted at children. For example, I asked my #ModEcho to read me a bedtime story last night, and it brought me into this Child Skill that has access to hundreds of stories and asked me to authenticate that a parent approved this skill. I was a bit surprised but it meant that a child could not just walk up to the Echo and begin using it as they may want. Thanks for sharing!

  3. juliasmacdonald · ·

    Great post! I think this definitely is a dark side to how pervasive technology has become in our lives and the lives of children. At the risk of sounding like my grandparents, kids today are constantly consumed by technology. I see young toddlers with iPads and headphones on planes, in cars, and at restaurants. Playing with video games has come to replace at least some of the time that would be spent playing outside. These technologies become companions, teachers, and friends. Who needs an imaginary friend if you have Alexa? We read in “How Smartphones Hijack Our Minds” and “Is Google Making Us Stupid?” the effects constant technological contact and dependence is changing the way adult brains function and how we socialize. I can only imagine the impact on the even more malleable, developing brains and social capabilities of children. While I can’t ignore all the benefits of tech (including increased convenience and access to information) I can’t help but think that the parents I know that limit their children’s use of technology to a certain number of hours a day might have some good reasons.

  4. Great post Mari! I have not heard of Mattel’s Aristotle prior to your blog post, but loved learning about it. It is discomforting to think a company wants to listen to children’s behavior through AI technology, store it in the cloud and then use it to improve the product. We treat children as the most vulnerable in society and this definitely penetrates that creepy/cool line. I found the study you shared on the affect of AI on children interesting; because they’re still learning social cues, they adapt to what they see and hear in front of them which isn’t always the most socially acceptable way to interact. Great post!

  5. Nice post, Mari! One aspect of Alexa that I think will be an interesting development, is the chatbox. I think that as Amazon starts finding more and more ways to make Alexa feel like a real person, the scarier it might be.After watching the videos for today’s class about how more people are psychologically reliant on these devices for company rather than normal, human interaction, I see why people felt that Mattel should discontinue this product.

  6. paulandresonbc · ·

    Very insightful post. There is no doubt that having these technologies listening in on our every day lives has immense effects on our children. It’s cool to think that children will look to robots in a similar manner as they do to adults for guidance or learning, and therefore it is important that we train our AI to “set a good example” in a sense.

  7. whitmcdonald2 · ·

    This post is perfect for this week’s discussion in class. I know there are pros and cons to every thing we use or consume, but because we won’t know the true consequences to children for a long time with research and stuff, it is very worrying. I think one of my biggest concerns is the dependency that is growing on technology especially AI or Alexas… It makes me concerned about how younger generations learn how to do things in the more traditional way in case we lose power or wifi. Great post, thanks for sharing!

  8. juliabrodigan · ·

    Great post. Prior to this post, I had not heard of the Aristotle. It sounds like an interesting new piece of technology. I think it is concerning that it is going to collect data on children, but I think it is also interesting to point out that most of the technology we use probably does the same. The internet and technology are constantly gathering data on us and using that data to understand us better and advertise products and services to us. This is mostly for adults and teenagers who use technology, so it is concerning that it is being used for children.

  9. m_thompson19 · ·

    Awesome post! The integration of tech into our lives is incredible. Sort of along the lines of Matt’s post on the tech that he used over break, this post really gets at how tech influences our day to day lives. Also interesting to point out the creepy/cool like that exists with tech like Alexa coming into play. So interesting to hear about the backlash on Aristotle when there has been such a demand for Alexa – maybe when it comes to kids theres a huge shift. A twitter post this week on the new “Uber for kids” app HopSkipDrive will hopefully shed more light on where the creepy cool line is drawn when children are involved and the distinction that exists between adults and kids using the same tech.

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