An opinion piece published in Archives of Disease in Childhood looks at the effects of smart voice control devices on children.
Dr Amy Orben, Programme Leader Track Scientist, MRC Cognition and Brain Sciences Unit, University of Cambridge, said:
“This academic paper does not provide any novel evidence about the impact of voice assistants on children. It is an opinion piece, and its argument rests largely on news reports and anecdotal evidence, citing extremely little scientific evidence. Most concerns that are highlighted by this article are only backed up by news reports, and not by scientific evidence. Scientifically, little is known about the impact of voice assistants on children. The impacts of voice assistants are probably mixed and very dependent on how they are used by children.”
Prof Pete Etchells, Professor of Psychology and Science Communication, Bath Spa University, said:
“This is an opinion piece, published in an academic journal, that does not appear to have been externally peer-reviewed, and provides little in the way of convincing primary research to support its arguments. The conclusions should therefore be treated critically and with extreme caution. Instead, the opinion piece relies primarily on news articles to support the claim that we should be concerned about voice control smart devices. To date, there is no evidence that I am aware of in the research literature to support the idea that such devices have a negative impact on aspects of development such as critical thinking, empathy or compassion, as the article claims. Much to the contrary, there is an emerging body of literature which suggests that when smart speakers are used appropriately and alongside adult guidance, they can nurture some aspects of language development and can improve story comprehension.
“We know from empirical research that children use smart speakers primarily to seek out information, but that the nature of this is age-dependent – for example, younger children are more likely to ask questions about their family or themselves. But kids are smart, and it’s also the case that as they get older, they are able to modify and improve their interactions with smart speakers because they understand when they get inaccurate or irrelevant responses. In other words, as children grow up with these devices, they become more agile and adaptive at using them.
“Understanding how and why children interact with smart speakers is important, because it will give us insight into what the potential benefits and risks are, in turn allowing us to boost the former while minimising the latter. If researchers are serious about wanting to do this, then the first step in the process is to develop and build appropriate theory and suitable methodological frameworks to ask sensible research questions. It is not to write an opinion piece that has the potential to result in another unhelpful panic about digital technology.”
‘Effects of smart voice control devices on children: current challenges and future perspectives’ by name of Anmol Arora et al. was published in Archives of Disease in Childhood at 23:30 UK time on Tuesday 27th September.
Dr Amy Orben: “No declarations of interest.”
Prof Pete Etchells is the author of Lost in a Good Game, and of the forthcoming book Screens Are Not Your Enemy.