THE SPARK BLOG

You might have spent time over Christmas and New Year listening to children play with their family’s new ‘Alexa’. The Alexa in question – if you are not into your gadgets – is the name of the personal assistant service (and ‘wake word’) on Amazon’s range of Echo intelligent speakers.

Along with Google’s equivalent ‘Home’, intelligent speakers are set to become a permanent fixture in our homes. With basic voice commands they can complete an ever increasing range of tasks.

Alexa Amazon Echo dot

Alexa? Play ‘Let It Go’…


Watching and listening to young kids play with Alexa recently was fascinating.

At first it started with wide-eyed disbelief at being able to play ‘Let it Go’ from Disney’s Frozen by just asking. Excitement reached fever pitch as Alexa told jokes, named all the Disney princesses and offered to book tickets for Paddington 2 at the cinema.

At the time a few of the parents joked that once the kids realised Alexa could order pizza and new IPads they would be in trouble (more on that later).

Pizza ordered by Alexa

Who ordered 30 pizzas?

Gradually the kids started asking more challenging questions of Alexa. Of course, with the system connected to the constantly expanding body of knowledge that is the Internet, there was little it could not answer.

Alexa knew everything. And that concerned me.

Why would I ask mum or dad? I can ask Alexa…


Back in the dark ages before the Internet we would go to our parents or grandparents for answers.

They would impart their own knowledge or find a book in the library that could do the same. Though neither understood it at the time, this represented an important bonding experience between child and parent.

The importance of parent child bonding


Here at The Spark we talk a lot about the importance of parent and child bonding from birth.

Babies brains make connections at 1 million times per second as they learn in the first 1000 days after birth. The cuddles, face to face interaction and kisses we share with them encourage that brain development.

The importance of the invisible bond between parent and child does not however end when they, for example, can ask Alexa to read them a bedtime story.

Throughout the journey from childhood to adulthood, maintaining that bond is vital in shaping confident, resilient and happy adults.

Child reading a book not asking Alexa the answer

Parents with older children will attest to the huge challenge in keeping any opportunities to bond intact.

Education is one of the few constants in this regard and as far as The Spark is concerned, we believe these opportunities need to be protected and encouraged.

The downsides of Alexa and the Internet


There are already concerns that children are learning about relationships, sex, self-worth and self-image via the Internet and often in potentially harmful ways.

Child development specialists have, in particular, reservations about the nature of the artificial intelligence that smart speakers use to ‘learn’.

Questions posed to Alexa and Home need to be formed using limited vocabulary and required only limited language skills. Their concerns are what this could do to the development of communication skills among younger children.

Furthermore none of the relationship nuances and social skills required in human to human contact are needed when using intelligent services.

In short, the child demands and the system provides with no questions or limitations.

Is Alexa safe for children?


For parents thinking about introducing artificial intelligence systems like Alexa to their home, The Spark has prepared some advice on how to manage the process:

1 Set some ground rules

When introducing new technology to the home set rules on how kids are and are not allowed to use it. For example, explaining the difference between asking Alexa for something and how they would ask another adult or child for something.

2 Get them reading books

Try to avoid allowing kids to solely learn via the Internet. Get back to reading encyclopaedias and atlases, and taking the occasional trip to your local library.

3 Use your own knowledge

Explain and educate them with the knowledge you have. Enjoy the opportunity to spend time and bond with them.

4 Learn together on the Internet

Where the Internet is the best or only option for learning, sit with them and be available to answer other questions. Discuss what they have learned and what else they might want to find out about.

5 Limit time

Limit use of intelligent systems by younger children, particularly when they are developing their language and communication skills.

6 Use parental controls

Update parental controls on your web browsers and intelligent speakers. Unless you have controls in place – for example, turning off voice purchases in Alexa – your kids could be ordering toys galore and enough pizza to feed the whole street.

If you have music and/or video streaming services check there are restrictions on explicit lyrics/adult content. You don’t want your 5 year-old singing the original version of Kanye West’s ‘Gold Digger’.

Artificial intelligence and therefore artificial relationships are going to become part and parcel of our lives. It is important that children use such technology safely and don’t lose opportunities to bond with their parents.

After all we don’t want to get to a point when our kids ask: “Alexa? Why do I need parents?”

Specialist support for parents, children and families


The relationships we have as parents and families are the most important in life. Even without new technology they can at times be very challenging.

The Spark’s specialist counsellors can provide support to parents and children in managing the ups and downs of life.  Find out more about counselling and support services with The Spark or have a look at our free online resources for parents and families.

Children And Young People, Families, Mental Health, Parenting, Relationships, Society, The Spark, Tips, Topical