Alexa Is the New Parent: How AI Impacts Children’s Well-Being

How AI Impacts Children’s Well-Being

In an era dominated by technology, it’s vital for parents to cultivate a harmonious blend of offline experiences and AI engagement to nurture holistic development in children.

Recently, parenting influencer April who goes by the username @msaprilwu on Instagram shared her experience as an elementary school teacher to Generation Alpha (children born between 2010 and 2024). She recalled how her students often accidentally called her “mom”, “mama” and so on, but, for the first time in her life, she was stunned to hear a kid address her as “Alexa”. That’s when she realized the significant shift in generations, officially dethroning Gen-Zs as the most perplexing generation.

This trend of children referring to voice assistants like “Alexa” or calling out “OK Google” to seek answers has been circulating on social media platforms through various videos. In fact, some reports have noted that Amazon’s voice assistant, Alexa, has taken over most of Generation Alpha’s lives and unexpectedly became their first word. 

This surely turns our attention toward children’s—especially from toddlers to pre-teens—dependency on AI-powered voice assistants or chatbots. These clever aides, created to simplify our lives, are increasingly evolving into digital friends for young minds. While there are perks to it, such as unlimited access to knowledge, experts have raised red flags of over-dependency on these technologies. 

The origin and evolution of Amazon’s Alexa

In 2014, Amazon released Alexa, the voice-activated virtual assistant. Alexa is designed to live out the “your wish is my command” philosophy. Analyzing spoken requests using machine learning (ML) and natural language processing (NLP) techniques, it can carry out a variety of functions, such as streaming music, answering inquiries, updating weather information, setting alarms and timers and many other tasks. 

Amazon’s AI assistant was named in honor of the Library of Alexandria, one of the most well-known libraries in antiquity. The library was renowned for its enormous knowledge base and its function as a hub for education. Hence, Amazon adopted the name Alexa with the intention of conjuring up feelings of wisdom and empathy. 

To activate the device, you only need to say “Alexa” out loud. Then, you can pose questions or make requests, which will be analyzed by Alexa by looking through its enormous knowledge base. In a few seconds, it will respond to you or carry out the specified instructions.

Millions of people across the world rely on Alexa for a variety of chores because of its adaptability and user-friendliness. Its ability includes ordering products online, calling someone, booking a ride, playing games with users, turning off the room’s lights, delivering real-time information and more.

How is AI like Alexa a threat to children’s overall well-being? 

As the use of Alexa and other AI companions becomes prevalent among children, concerns have emerged regarding their impact on the overall well-being of young minds. It is important to explore how the reliance on Alexa’s AI technology can potentially pose threats to children’s psychological and social development.

First of foremost, Alexa’s AI technology poses significant threats to children’s psychological and social development. Since these AI companions are always there to answer questions, engage in discussions and provide companionship, children may find it simpler to communicate with AI gadgets. However, this reliance can lead to unhealthy attachments and emotional dependence on these devices. Instead of seeking human connections, youngsters may resort to AI helpers for friendship and advice, potentially leaving them feeling detached from and isolated from the real world. 

Consequently, they may have fewer face-to-face interactions with loved ones and classmates, hindering their capacity to develop deep connections and hampering the critical interpersonal and emotional abilities nurtured through human connections. Moreover, this over-dependence on electronics often translated into increased screen time, contributing to sedentary behavior and health problems.

Additionally, worries regarding privacy and security of information are raised by the widespread use of AI. As children engage with smart home devices, they might unwittingly share a substantial amount of sensitive information, including their daily activities, habits and even their emotions. 

Of particular concern is the collection of children’s voice data by Alexa, as Amazon faced allegations of violating the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act (COPPA) by retaining children’s voice recordings obtained through Alexa without honoring parents’ deletion requests. The risks associated with tech companies collecting and storing such personal information include the potential for breaches or the misuse of sensitive data.

Furthermore, the reliance on AI gadgets has educational ramifications that cannot be overlooked. While these sophisticated assistants can provide answers and assistance with assignments, they may inadvertently hinder children’s analytical and problem-solving abilities. Children may become accustomed to relying on their devices for answers rather than working problems out independently, potentially impeding their cognitive development in these important areas. 

Limiting AI access for children: A parent’s guide to embedded controls

In recognition of the necessity for parental control and safeguarding kids’ security in the digital era, tech giant Amazon has introduced options and features designed to restrict children’s access to its AI assistant. 

One such feature is “FreeTime”, which provides a safer and more suitable environment for kids to interact with Alexa-enabled items. With FreeTime, parents have the option to designate personalized accounts for their kids, giving them control over content filtering, device usage management and setting time limits. 

In addition to FreeTime, Amazon has incorporated extensive parental control options that let parents monitor how their children use Alexa. These options include limiting voice purchases, implementing explicit content screening and utilizing the Parent Dashboard function to track their children’s digital behavior, such as their online activities and preferences. These controls empower parents to keep a close check on their children’s interactions with Alexa.

While tech companies provide solutions to address digital concerns, parents too can play a proactive role at home. First and foremost, encouraging offline activities that capture kids’ interest away from screens is crucial. By promoting outdoor activities, sports, artistic endeavors and reading, parents can divert their children’s focus from AI gadgets and foster holistic development. These alternative avenues foster creativity, physical health, and social relationships.

Establishing boundaries and time restrictions for the use of AI is equally important. Consistent rules and enforcement help children understand the value of moderation. By limiting screen time, kids can engage in face-to-face conversations, pretend play and problem-solving games, all essential for developing interpersonal skills.

Furthermore, teaching children about digital citizenship is paramount. Children who are taught to use AI and the internet responsibly are better able to recognize the possible negative effects of overusing technology. Kids can be empowered to navigate the digital world responsibly by learning about online safety, ethical behavior and the importance of privacy. This approach cultivates a healthy relationship with AI while also promoting offline social connections.

Despite positive strides with parental controls, companies like Amazon have room for improvement in protecting children from AI’s downsides. Nonetheless, the proactive measures taken by tech giants in developing AI voice assistant devices demonstrate their recognition of the need for parental oversight and their commitment to creating a safer online environment for kids. As technology continues to evolve, it is essential for both companies and parents to work together in ensuring the responsible and beneficial use of AI technology for the well-being of our youngest generation.

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