As the rapid expansion of voice assistants continues, set to be used by 36.6% of the U.S. population by 2021, much has been made of one of the core groups driving that growth— kids. According to eMarketer, we can “expect 1.5 million kids—those ages 11 and younger—to use a smart speaker like Amazon Echo or Google Home, at least once a month. By 2020, that figure will grow to 2.2 million.” This audience is just starting to emerge as a key segment of assistant users and will undoubtedly continue adopting the technology at a high rate.

Kids are also fundamentally distinct from other user groups in that they are growing up in a world where these devices will have always been a part of their daily lives and, in many ways, shaped their expectations of interactions with technology. 

Kids are a not only a unique audience, but studies suggest they are also power users of voice technology. Data from SuperAwesome found that “ 26% of kids exposed to voice technology engage with smart speakers between 2 to 4 hours per week, and 20% talk to devices more than 5 hours a week”. This usage sets kids up to be a driving force of this technology’s growth in the future. More so than teenagers, who have screen devices and already rely on a mix of mediums to engage with the connected web, younger kids will grow up with voice as a preferred input and expect it to be present in their engagement with all technology. As this group ages up, their foundational experiences with voice technology will have significant implications on all consumer behaviors. In a recent Harvard Business Review article, written by partners from Lipencott and Oliver Wyman, the authors state “In a decade or so, we believe a significant share of commerce will be carried out by a generation used to shopping by voice.” 

With kids driving the way voice technology will be used in the coming years, it’s critical we understand how they think of these devices and assistants today, and examine how that might shape the future.

 

Voice assistants are a part of the family

One of the first things to know about kids relationship to voice assistants is that they are very personal. Often children using voice-enabled devices with anthropomorphize them and form unique bonds with them. This finding dates back several years where in 2017 in a small group test, MIT found that “younger children were more likely to speak to digital assistants as if they were people, asking them things like what their favourite colour was and how old they were. However they also tried to understand how they worked. ‘Do you have a phone inside you?’ and ‘what are you?’ were notable questions. The study concluded that the children believed they could teach the devices as well as learn from them.” (BBC)  This innate curiosity around the assistant and what they were was explored further by Rachel Severson, a University of Montana child psychologist. Speaking with CNN she says “There are numerous anecdotes that young children think there’s a little person inside the device or there’s a person on the other end of the exchange, like a telephone,’ Severson said. “These illustrate that children are actively trying to figure out how to conceptualize these devices — are they alive or not alive? Is it a real person in there?’”

Part of the source for this intrigue has been produced by parents. A 2017 BabyCenter survey found that 22% of parents considered their devices “like another part of the family”. (Adweek) Furthermore, anecdotes abound about parents usage of voice assistants as everything from playtime moderator to bedtime facilitator when it comes to their kids.

The combination of these devices sounding like people and parents treating them as family extensions has created a unique dynamic for kids growing up alongside assistants. Not quite human, not quite computer— something else, an ‘other’ that is always there and happy to help them and their family anytime. 

 

A developing kids ecosystem

Although the kids voice ecosystem is yet to mature, there are already early signs of experience types which this group prefers. Specific experience types kids have been noted to be using voice for include gaming, education and various forms of entertainment from answering questions and telling jokes to playing audiobooks and podcasts. Reviewing the top kids skills of 2018 as ranked by popular tech outlet Mashable shows similar trends.

How Children Interact with Voice Enabled Smart Speakers
(Data from NPR and Edison Research)

Beyond kids personal usage of smart speakers, certain professionals are beginning to integrate voice assistants directly into their work. This is especially true in the education field where startups such as Bamboo Learning are leaning into the technology and leveraging it to redefine the way students engage with early-age curriculum such as reading and analyzing stories.

As kids continue to grow up with voice assistants connected to their lives, at home and outside of it, they will expect these services to be present everywhere and to be able to handle more and more tasks. 

 

Finding a balance between assisting and doing

In 2018, Amazon introduced Amazon FreeTime on Alexa alongside kids edition Echo Dot devices. This provided parents a way to control content accessible through the devices as well as other expected features such as activity review and time limits. Notably, it also introduced a feature called ‘Magic Word’ which would encourage children to speak with Alexa devices using polite words such as please and thank you. If they did this, the device would reply with niceties in return. Google announced a similar feature, ‘Pretty Please’ mode, as part of their Family Link offering later that same year. 

While many approve of these features and appreciate the tech industry’s efforts to combat fears of children transferring a learned behavior of shouting demands from machine to humans, others remain cautious that this is the best avenue forward. In his 2018 article “The case against teaching kids to be polite to Alexa”, author Mike Elgan argues “Politeness features aim to help kids learn good manners. But the unintended consequences might be to teach kids that intelligent machines are more or less the same as people, or even that they’re authority figures that should legitimately scrutinize human behavior.” This raises legitimate concerns around how children interact with devices and puts the onus on parents and experience designers to ensure that this group grows up treating others with respect, but also recognizing there is a difference between the device and other humans around them.

In addition to social behavior, another major research area regarding kids and voice assistants, is the effect on learning and problem-solving skills. On the one hand, there are parents who value the exploratory nature of the medium and the ability for kids to get answers that quickly help them through tasks. An example of this can be heard from Forbes council member Cassio Goldschmidt who writes “ I experimentally gave my kindergarten-age son a smart speaker for Christmas. Six-plus months later, I believe this experiment positively expanded his knowledge, developed his logical thinking, entertained him, improved his writing and even helped him let go of his fear of the dark. In a world where screens are becoming the dominant way to interact with everything and everyone, the ability to employ natural voice devices in our daily lives have been a refreshing, interactive experience and represents a suitable alternative to parents who want to keep children’s eyes from going square.” 

However, others such as Jenny Radesky, a developmental behavioral pediatrician at the University of Michigan believe it’s more complex than that. In an interview with WIRED she says “I think these tools can be awesome, and provide quick fixes to situations that involve answering questions and telling stories that parents might not always have time for, but I also want parents to consider how that might come to displace some of the experiences they enjoy sharing with kids.”

Beyond shared experiences, the larger concern is about how these devices will affect the way children learn.

Boston University professor of applied human development, Diane Levin, shared her thoughts on this topic with NPR emphasizing the importance of children learning how to struggle with problems, saying “”They will use those skills that they’re learning for all kinds of things that come along. If they are a good problem-solver they’ll do better than kids who just go to a screen to get the answer.” Here again, voice assistant providers and experience designers must strike the right balance between go-to companion with the answers and an experiential medium that assists with learning. We have seen what can happen when companies ignore these issues and try and create a pure assistant. Even with the best intentions, they will not be allowed into the market. 

 

Emerging Considerations

Despite the rapid progress voice has made with this generation, many see privacy and the protocols that will likely get put in place as being the keystone that will help define where assistants’ relationships with kids go from here. Currently the privacy landscape around kids engagement with voice assistants is murky and in need of definition. This has even led to some providers creating devices specifically built on the premise that they are more secure than mainstream tech company offerings. The reason this debate is so crucial is because data collection and data usage is what will enable these experiences to become more personalized and valuable to kids. Consider a world where voice assistants can adapt to a child’s learning level and help them grow as their capabilities do or imagine kids having voice-enabled ‘profiles’ that can be defined at home and made accessible at school for educators or other professionals to help with development recommendations. 

All of this depends on an ethical design of data usage and voice assistant experiences intended to help kids learn, advance their social skills and develop their cognitive abilities.

More than any other group, today’s kids contingent will shape the future of voice assistants and their design. As discussed here, there is a lot to be considered that will surely change the way voice-enabled devices function for kids in the coming years. As parents, educators and experience designers work to find optimal ways to engage and assist kids through childhood and into adolescence, the way they function for all will fundamentally be altered. 

Portions of this article originally appeared in MediaPost

 

Sources:

As Customers Begin to Shop Through Voice Assistants, What Can Brands Do to Stand Out?, Harvard Business Review

Alexa in the Classroom? Amazon’s Voice Assistant Leads Kids’ Story Time, Bloomberg

What Do Kids Ask Smart Speakers?, PC Magazine

Parents can’t delete what kids tell Amazon voice assistant, AP News

A ‘Safe’ Smart Speaker for Kids? Startup Chatterbox Promises to Put Privacy First, EdSurge

How Children Interact with Smart Speakers. Statista

Parents discover sound way to decrease kids’ screen time, Financial Times

Chatterbox is a DIY smart speaker for kids that puts privacy first, Venture Beat

A Voice Assistant Has Become My Co-Parent, Wall Street Journal

The Smart Speaker Series: Kids & Teens, eMarketer

Growing up with Alexa: A child’s relationship with Amazon’s voice assistant, CNN

Should you leave your child alone with a voice assistant robot?, MarketWach

Amazon Alexa: is it friends with your kids?, BBC

Kids and Technologies: Smart Speakers, Forbes

Hey Alexa, What Are You Doing to My Kid’s Brain?, WIRED

Mattel is scrapping its voice assistant for kids amid privacy concerns,The Week

Millennial Parents and Their Kids Love Smart Speakers, but Data Privacy Issues Persist, Adweek

Why Millennial Parents Will Drive Marketing for the Internet of Things, Adweek