Are smart speakers safe for kids?

Smart speakers are becoming increasingly popular in the home with millions of us routinely using them to play our favorite music, carry out internet research and routine household requirements such as turning off the lights, setting the calendar or giving us a weather forecast. Ultra convenient and easy to use, smart speakers are undeniably popular with consumers because they make life so easy. Kids love using them too because even young children can issue a command or ask a question about poop and have the satisfaction of getting a response.

However we must consider the big question; are smart speakers safe for kids? Let’s take a look.

What are smart speakers?

A smart speaker is a voice activated device that works as a virtual assistant. The most popular system is Amazon Alexa with over 100 million of these sold worldwide with the Amazon Echo Dot as the smart speaker.

Other brands include Google Nest which is compatible with Android and Apple has released a smart speaker called Apple Home Pod which works with the virtual assistant function Siri.

Smart speakers work by responding to recognised voices. Over time the speaker will learn so the more you talk the more the voice assistant will get to understand your accent and voice patterns.

In order for a smart speaker to work, it has to soak up dialogue in the home in order to listen out for any potential commands. This means that Smart speakers are constantly recording any conversation within earshot and this includes recording what your kids say and learning their vocabulary too.

Privacy concerns

Most parents do not consider the privacy implications of having a smart speaker in the home. However there are concerns that this ability to record kids is a threat to personal security. Some advocacy groups in the US declare it a violation of privacy because conversations are recorded without explicit consent. In addition, Alexa does not make it easy to delete data at will and most people don’t even realise that doing this is even possible.

In Seattle a lawsuit was filed against the internet giant Amazon, alleging that Amazon specifically is violating child privacy laws in at least eight U.S. states by capturing audio from millions of children.

Dangers of smart speakers to kids

In addition to privacy issues, smart speakers can cause additional problems for parents and kids. If the smart speaker has not been protected via kid proof locks and similar safe guards, children could order items and goods and pay for them online via your payment methods.

Internet content can also be unsuitable. Without safe guards your kids could be listening to adult rated music and content.

With a direct line to your whole online presence, your kids could send messages and texts to your contacts, mess with your calendar and access private messages and contents which may be unsuitable.

So how do you keep smart speakers safe for kids to use?

The easiest way to keep your family life private is to get up off the sofa and just press the mute button. However this goes against the convenience of using a smart speaker. After all there seems little point to even owning a smart speaker if you have to switch it on and off at the speaker when you wish to use it.

Let’s take a look at the kids’ settings of some of the major smart speakers.

Amazon Echo

Amazon Echo is the smart speaker which is integrated with the Alexa system. There is a kid’s friendly version called Echo Dots Kids Edition which filters out inappropriate content and words. This comes with parental restrictions including:

  • You can turn off in app ordering or set a code to prevent children from buying from Amazon
  • You can create an age appropriate account that will block any adult content.
  • You can turn off the “drop in “function to prevent your children from dropping into video calls hosted by other Echo users
  • You can activate a do not disturb function to prevent your children using the smart speaker when they should be sleeping or studying.

Google Nest

This smart speaker system is designed for use with Android and a Google account.

  • To keep your children safe, you can activity the family link setting and although your child’s access is via their own android phone, you can control this from your device.
  • There is a digital wellbeing tool which enables you to set age appropriate filters.
  • You can turn off the Google Pay function so avoid the problem of unwanted purchases that you will pay for.

Apple Home Pod

The Apple Home pod is probably the best speaker when it comes to sound quality and it uses the Siri voice control as the digital assistant.

  • You can block explicit content by following safety guidelines on your Apple account.
  • You can also block personal requests such as the ability to send and receive personal information held on your device.
  • There is a function to block your kids from making in app purchases.

Are there any other risks to kids from smart speakers?

The three key issues with smart speakers are that children can access unsuitable content, interfere with your own protected data and carry out internet shopping online without your permission. However it seems that the major companies need to do more.

Any technology aimed at children needs to offer some protection to users and although Amazon, Google and Apple do offer parents some control, industry watchers are concerned that these are not far reaching enough.

The whole concept of kid proof is just not reliable. In many households, the children may be the most tech savvy family members anyway so will probably find workaround solutions to unblock internet access.

In addition, are these smart speakers and virtual assistants sending a good message? Because the voices are young female voices, young children could associate young women with being the servants and the care givers which is a message that reinforces outdated gender stereotypes.

So what can parents do to protect kids from the perils of smart speakers?

The smart speaker is not going away any time soon. Most of us trade our privacy for convenience after all and for some busy people this can be a useful tool. Always remember that you can switch it off and that you can delete your data every day. That way you will have some control over the privacy of your family.

However the main thing to remember is that if you do have children it is essential that you apply some controls to your home system. The internet can be a fabulous tool for learning but in most cases for kids, their use of the smart speaker needs to be monitored and controlled via the protective settings. It is important to monitor these regularly, especially if your have older kids who probably know their way round the internet far better than you.

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