Amazon’s Alexa technology, delivered by the Echo and Dot, is in an estimated eight million U.S. homes, according to GeekWire.
That’s millions of kids interacting with the digital voice recognition system each day.
As these devices—and smart technology in general—become a part of every day life, more and more parents are wrestling with the question of do you treat the machine like a person or like a computer?
Should kids be saying “please” and “thank you” to Alexa? Is Alexa a “she” or an “it?”
She vs. It
The Skelly family in Washington, D.C. has been thinking a lot about Alexa, fostering creativity and staying engaged as their two young sons, ages two and five, navigate technology.
In the few months they’ve had an Echo in their home, the Skelly boys have enjoyed using Alexa to play their favorite songs and to set timers for sharing their toys.
As their boys grow more familiar with the device’s capabilities, Stacy and her husband are careful to enforce that it’s a computer, not a person.
“My husband came across an article one day that explored how kids interact with artificial intelligence,” Stacy Skelly says.
For Stacy, who leads Pearson’s efforts to engage with parents, and her husband, technology is not human.
“Alexa is an ‘it’ for us,” she says.
“We stress how you build relationships with people, not technology,” Stacy says.
Erin Martin and her family take a different approach.
Erin and her husband live in Corvallis, Oregon with their five-year-old son, where she is a web content strategist for Oregon’s university system. Since receiving their Echo as a gift at the holidays, their son has used the Alexa technology the most in the house. They are OK with their son talking to Alexa like a person.
“My son actually addresses Alexa because she lights up in cool ways when she recognizes voices,” Erin says.
For the most part, her son enjoys asking for the time and the weather, as well as the occasional joke.
“The other day, he got frustrated when Alexa didn’t give him an answer fast enough,” she says. “But I’m pretty sure he understands that she’s not a person.”
What The Experts Say
Unwilling to settle the ‘it’ or ‘she’ debate on his own, Denis Hurley, Pearson’s Director of Future Technologies, sees the question as another way to include children in the conversation at home.
“By constantly questioning their own thoughts and assumptions about this developing technology, this will improve the way children react, interact, and, ultimately, create with it,” he says.
“These kinds of technologies have to be accepted in homes long before they’re accepted in school,” says Denis.
“Remember iPads?” he says. “They were all over communities before they made it into the classroom.”
Denis does put some limits on what his own eight-year-old daughter can and cannot do with digital toys.
“It’s always best when these tech tools are used to foster creativity and problem-solving,” he says.
In the end, Denis says, it’s all about parents and caregivers staying engaged.
“The more moms and dads are a part of the experience,” he says, “the more we can help our children become responsible digital citizens.”
For a look at why it may be good for children to treat artificial intelligence devices like real people, watch the video below featuring Kristen DiCerbo, Pearson’s Vice President of Education Research and Global Product Organization.