These voice-activated interfaces are an affordable luxury (the original Echo is priced at Rs 7,999 while the more compact Echo Dot is at Rs 3,499) with several nuclear families purchasing them as a novelty – and also to aid in their young kids’ education and growing-up process, such as improving diction and pronunciation. Children learn to interact with these devices by voice, even before they can type or swipe on others – and the virtual assistants are able to help them with anything from answering a question on science to playing their favourite song.
However, there has arisen one pressing issue now: kids, as young as three or four years old, are so used to commanding their virtual assistants to do tasks – that they have forgotten how to talk to humans.
“My four-year-old absolutely loved Alexa when we got the device around eight months ago. We did set some parental controls and were happy to let him use it for a few hours daily.
However, over the course of the last month, we have noticed him losing all sense of the concept of respect when he addresses us: just yesterday, he called my name out and said, ‘Switch on the television right now and keep the volume high,” says Jyoti Sridhar, a homemaker.
She’s not the only one – in fact, parents across the world are having the same worry.
So much so, that Amazon released a new Echo Dot Kids Edition, in which Alexa thanks children for ‘asking nicely.’
Google Assistant’s upcoming Pretty Please feature will remind kids to ‘say the magic word’ before granting their order.
Sree Prasad is another parent who was thrilled at his smart speaker helping his three-year-old daughter get over her stammer and lisp while talking – but was less happy when she stopped wanting to talk to any of her friends anymore.
Still, studies such as a 2017 survey conducted at the at the MIT Media Lab in Cambridge, show that many children see these virtual friends as ‘friendly and trustworthy.’ Yet others state that they would trust Alexa more than a real person when talking about a problem – why? The device won’t judge them.
Counselling psychologist Nikita Vyas says that the only way to reduce this over-dependence is if parents keep aside a dedicated family time in the house where all smart devices, including phones, are switched off for a period of time. “It’s impossible to live without these devices, so one must learn to co-exist. So, it’s important to balance this dependence on technology with real human interaction.
I urge parents to make it a family tradition rather than a strict rule, so as to motivate kids more to log off their devices daily.”