How to use virtual assistants with kids

By Jenny Radesky, MD

young girl and woman cooking together

Many families may have welcomed a virtual assistant — such as Alexa, Google Home, or another artificial intelligence (AI)-powered technology — into their home over the holidays, and many parents have Siri or another voice-activated assistant on their phone. Parents may wonder how to get the most out of these convenient, always-listening devices without the living room becoming a battlefield of children yelling for the assistant’s attention. While there’s no research about kids and virtual assistants yet, there are a few principles you can follow.

The first is: Don’t assume that children think about virtual assistants the same way we adults do. (Although, honestly, most of us don’t even fully understand what these assistants do with our data.) A few studies have compared how children and adults think about robots or interactive toys, finding that children are much more likely to believe that robots think and feel, should be treated with human values, and are trustworthy. They might think the same way about the virtual assistant in their living room.

Knowing that children sometimes see the world very differently than adults, I asked my kids. We don’t have a virtual assistant in my house (just lots of speakers for music), but since my kids have used Siri a lot, I asked my 8-year-old, “Who is Siri?” He replied, “Oh, she’s a lady in California who answers our questions whenever we need her.” What?! I had to correct that, because I’m not okay with him thinking that someone is available instantly whenever he has a question. (I want him to learn to hold thoughts in his mind!)

The second principle is: Kids think and learn very differently than AI. Kids’ minds are imaginative and expansive; AI looks for the same patterns over and over. Kids tie together information from vastly different experiences without logic (like worrying that because water goes down the tub drain, their body might too); AI is very fact- and logic-driven. So it’s possible that kids and AI might not communicate very well.

Here are some other questions I’ve been asked:

1. Can virtual assistants accidentally reward negative child behaviors, by answering children even if they use a demanding voice or rude words?

This is certainly possible, if a child thinks: “Well it worked last time, and it was fun to say a sassy word, so I’ll try that again.” Parents should have house rules about kindness when interacting with any being, alive or AI. But, I’m also concerned about informal learning: the understanding about the world that children gain not from direct teaching, but by watching people around them. When children come to think that everything is on-demand, it may make it harder to wait and accept the challenge of figuring things out by themselves — two really important challenges of childhood. Informal learning can also happen in positive ways, like when science podcasts teach the child that it’s important to care about nature or when TV programs show a variety of cultures and abilities as the norm.

2. Is it OK to let your child ask endless questions to Siri or another voice-enabled assistant?

Little kids ask tons of questions, so it may seem great to let them ask AI instead of you. There are two things to consider here: First, the virtual assistants may have plenty of facts, but they can’t provide meaning — that’s what loved ones do, especially through storytelling. Second, as a parent, you sometimes realize that children’s rapid-fire questions have another meaning — an underlying anxiety that itself could be better addressed through pretend play, drawing, or a hug, rather than more facts. For instance, my younger son asked tons of questions about house fires one winter after seeing a neighbor’s house in flames. His questions were about his fear, and wanting a sense of security. Answering his questions with more facts might have made him worry more.

3. What if your child has autism or another condition, and talking to a virtual assistant helps them learn to take turns?

That’s great! But don’t let it stop there. In any developmental condition, it’s important to generalize skills to new settings. In other words, if you get more comfortable talking to Siri, then step by step, practice those skills in more challenging social environments with real people.

4. What are the good sides?

What I like about speaker-based software and assistants is that they create an audio environment that the family can enjoy together. Families can play podcasts, audio games, music and dance together, and learn something new that can spark conversations.

How to use virtual assistants with kids was originally featured on PBS Kids, and is being reposted to provide insight into popular tech for families.