Analysis

Amazon is launching a new virtual assistant for kids — what could possibly go wrong?

Do children really need a virtual assistant of their own? That's a tricky question, adding to other concerns, with the launch of an Echo Dot smart speaker for kids.

Parental controls might be welcome for families, but privacy expert worries about data collection

Amazon's new smart speaker aimed at children is a voice-controlled device powered by the Alexa digital assistant. (Amazon)

If you have a digital home assistant, the chances are good your children are using it too. And sometimes, those interactions might not be exactly "kid friendly." It's not unlikely that a tot might cue up a playlist full of explicit lyrics, unknowingly rack up bills through your online shopping cart, or get sidetracked from their homework, while chatting away with Siri or Alexa.

Now, tech giant Amazon is introducing the Echo Dot Kids Edition, a child-focused version of its Echo smart speaker. But while that news might come as a relief for some parents, there may also be cause for concern — not the least of which is the security of kids' data, especially given recent revelations of just how much user information is amassed by the tech giants.

On May 9, Amazon is launching the latest additions to their collection of smart-home technologies in the United States, with a suite of products aimed at the littlest ones among us.

And although, as with previous Amazon product launches, it will be a while before the new "kid friendly" offerings come to Canada, now that the massive online retailer has joined the ranks of other tech giants targeting children with their products, it's time to consider the consequences of digital tools and services designed specifically for the youngest members of the family.

According to Dave Limp, Amazon's senior vice president of devices and services, these new tools, "will give parents peace of mind knowing their kids are getting age-appropriate content, while they listen to music and books, ask questions."

With a new feature called FreeTime, a dashboard lets parents choose which services and skills kids can use, and gives them the ability to set a bedtime or block off time for homework, so that kids can't talk with Alexa when they're supposed to be sleeping or focusing on other things.

Option to turn off voice purchasing

For families that use Amazon Prime to buy goods, parents have the option to turn off voice purchasing. This way, when your toddler decides that it is hilarious to tell Alexa that he wants 700 bottles of ketchup, you don't need to worry about a pallet of French's finest showing up at your doorstep 48 hours later.

Of all the new kid-friendly offerings, one of the tools getting the most buzz is the "magic word" feature.

The colourful smart speakers are loaded with parental controls and a feature that encourages good manners. (Amazon)

As the online publication Quartz outlined, many parents "felt the devices have been conditioning their kids to be rude by not asking the assistant questions politely, instead incessantly barking at a disembodied female voice and implicitly learning that that's an acceptable way to act towards people."

Amazon claims the magic word feature will provide positive reinforcement when kids use the word "please" while asking questions of Alexa.

But do kids really need a virtual assistant of their own?

Kids already exposed to parents' devices

That's a tricky question. In today's hyper-connected world, the challenge of the Echo Dot Kids Edition is sort of a double-edged sword: On one hand, for families that have these devices in their homes already, chances are their children are using it, too. Kids learn by example, and the conversational interface is easy to pick up for kids who love mimicking their parents.

For all of those families whose kids are already regularly chatting with Alexa, having the ability to set parameters through parental controls is really important. Educational content geared toward young users, such as Q&As where kids can ask questions about topics including science, math and spelling, is also appealing.

But for some parents, Alexa's seemingly endless database of information and entertainment might be too much of a good thing.

According to the news release for the new device, "Alexa has age-appropriate suggestions at the ready, all kids have to say is, 'Alexa, I'm bored.'"

What about imaginative play?

While Alexa is continuously at the ready with knock-knock jokes, stories and songs to keep kids entertained, critics worry that too much reliance on digital tools is getting in the way of daydreaming and imaginative play.

And then, there are the privacy concerns. According to Ann Cavoukian, former Ontario Privacy Commissioner and creator of Privacy by Design, "while it is good that Amazon is introducing these new parental controls, on the back end there's no different data collection policies than for adults."

The bottom line, she says, is that information is going out to third parties, and parents don't have control over the information that is being collected, who has access to it, and what is done with it.

Concerns about identify theft

This is particularly concerning given that one of the most alarming recent trends Cavoukian has seen is identify theft for kids. She says, "it's hard to even imagine what it will be like to be plagued by that possibility as you're applying to schools or for jobs and there are other people using your identity, and you have to constantly clear your name."

Conflicted Canadian parents have some time to decide whether they're going to bring home the new smart speaker. According to Amazon's Canadian public relations team, at this time, they do not have details to share about when FreeTime or the Echo Dot Kids Edition will be available in Canada.

The silver lining in that longer wait is that perhaps some of the wrinkles that come up might have a chance to be ironed out before Canadians bring this into their homes.

As Cavoukian notes, there have been a lot of smart toys that have been pulled from the market, such as Aristotle, an AI driven toy that was pulled from shelves following privacy concerns about the device collecting too much personal information.

And as with Facebook, which launched its own purportedly child-friendly app last year, when tech giants target kids, we'd be wise to proceed with caution and ask a lot of questions, not least of which is 'why are they so keen on reaching this demographic?' the answer to which is essentially, to reach the customers of tomorrow, and as Ryerson Professor Richard Lachman commented, to "get their brand into the family young."

"You don't want your kids to be dependent on these devices," says Cavoukian. "There's a lot of time for that."

About the Author

Ramona Pringle

Technology Columnist

Ramona Pringle is an associate professor in the RTA School of Media and director of the Transmedia Zone at Ryerson University. She is a CBC contributor who writes and reports on the relationship between people and technology.