Alexa, Siri… Elsa? Children drive boom in smart speakers | Technology


Voice assistants such as Alexa and Siri will become common in children’s bedrooms, according to a new report from Internet Matters, the online safety body, which says it is critical for parents to spend more time understanding new technology.

The pandemic has accelerated the adoption of new technology at home by “three or four years”, the researchers said, and families in the UK will become much more reliant on voice-enabled devices over the next five years.

The report’s author, Lynne Hall, professor of computer science at the University of Sunderland, said we would even see the emergence of a range of celebrity voice assistants.

“You’d have Elsa from Frozen,” Hall said. “You can imagine that with every Disney film that came out there would be a new voice skin.” Amazon has already launched a novelty Samuel L Jackson voice for its Alexa devices, although it does not enable all voice commands.

The “Living The Future” report, based on interviews and surveys of parents and academics, says that 42% of families have been using tech together more often over the last three months – playing online games together (34%), watching tutorials (51%), streaming videos (41%) or online shopping (36%).

More families are using the tech together.



More families are using the tech together. Photograph: Amazon

Only 7% of parents said they wanted to return to the workplace full time, which is likely to further fuel a boom in home tech controlled by voice assistants, the report said.

“The home is becoming less and less private and we need to think about what data is being shared,” said Carolyn Bunting, the chief executive of Internet Matters. “We need to make sure we’re not sleepwalking into a world where we’re just giving away all of this information without thinking about where it’s going, who’s holding it or how it’s being used.”

Although voice assistants usually process commands using voice recognition, Apple, Amazon and Google have all used call-centre staff to check recordings and some have heard children sharing the home address and phone number, according to a Bloomberg report last year.

Hall said her research showed that children were encountering voice assistants almost from the day they are born. “Women are buying a voice assistant for their child’s bedroom when they’ve had the baby,” she said. “If you’ve got your hands full, it’s much easier to say, ‘Alexa, ring my partner’.”

Children do not see voice assistants as their friends, Hall said. “They don’t anthropomorphise. It’s very much a tool. But voice assistants are starting to learn how little children speak. Children try to teach the voice assistant if it doesn’t understand – they give it more information.”

Since parents play a vital role in children’s acquisition of language, there are unanswered questions about how hearing a mother or father giving orders to voice assistants might affect their development.

Australian academics Yolande Strengers and Jenny Kennedy have voiced concerns in their book The Smart Wife that the devices reinforce gender stereotypes since they are usually voiced by young women, take orders and are linked to domestic responsibilities.

There are potential safety benefits to using voice assistants, Bunting said, since children using them for information will usually accept the first answer.

Bunting called for better regulation. The government’s online harms bill, obliging social media companies to prevent children seeing harmful content, is likely to be published this winter, “but they are struggling with these softer issues,” she said.

She said that tech firms also needed to design an internet for children: “It’s wrong that in the Covid pandemic we saw six or seven-year-olds up to secondary school age children being thrust into Houseparty and Whatsapp video chats. None of those services are designed for little people. We need safe playgrounds for children online.”



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