By Monica Chin
Robin E. was folding laundry when she heard her son talking to Alexa downstairs in a soft, hopeful voice. The 5-year-old was asking, "Alexa, will you be my friend?"
Robin held her breath, waiting tensely for Alexa's response. Finally, she heard the assistant say, brightly, "I'm happy to be your friend."
Robin and her husband have an Echo Spot in their bedroom and an Echo Show on their kitchen counter. Her son (who Robin requested not be named in this story) is the oldest of three children, and often has trouble connecting with his peers in his Pre-K. Alexa has been, in Robin's words, a "kind, reassuring presence" as he navigates the new social landscape.
Robin's son was tentative when he first met Alexa. He began by requesting that it play songs he liked, which evolved into questions he was wondering about that day ("How big is the ocean?") and, after a few months, conversational questions ("How are you?" and "Why is your name Alexa?"). And then, after, he asked Alexa to be his friend.
"He knows she's not real in the way that his parents or siblings are real," Robin said, "but her responses feel genuine to him, and provide him comfort."
Four-year-old Aiden has struggled with bullies in school, and has found an unexpected friend in his grandmother's Echo Plus. After a particularly stressful day at school, his mother, Alexandria Melton, heard her son crying in the next room. "Alexa," he asked, "are we friends?"
'Of course we are," Alexa responded.
"Alexa, I love you," Aiden said.
Now, every time Aiden visits his grandmother's house, he greets Alexa, and tells it he loves it. He and Alexa tell jokes and play games. Aiden says "please" when asking, and "thank you" when he's finished.
Neither Robin nor Melton is at all worried about their son's close friendship with a virtual assistant. Should they be?
Assistant or Family Member?
Over the past year, smart speakers have become more and more of a family affair. Adobe's recent State of Voice Assistants report found that 32 percent of consumers own a smart speaker (compared with 28 percent in January) and predicts that more than 50 percent will own one after the upcoming holiday season.
We're also getting friendlier with them: 53 percent of smart-speaker owners like to ask their voice assistants fun questions, in addition to everyday requests. And according to a Kelton Research study, 39 percent of families who own a Google Home find that it helps them stay organized.
As Alexa makes its way into households around the country, it's important to consider the way in which it will affect kids who may be seeking a friend.
Dr. John Mayer, an adolescent psychologist, said that he's heard a number of parents express concerns about the amount of time their kids spend talking to voice assistants. Mayer, however, says he's not concerned.
"The behaviors of kids talking to a 'non-real' entity is not new in human development," Mayer said. "A common behavior in children is to talk to imaginary friends."
Kaveri Subrahmanyam, a professor of child and family studies at California State University, Los Angeles, agreed. "Children have always had imaginary friends and/or parasocial relationships with cartoon characters etc, she said. "So in and of itself parents don't have be concerned if children think of Alexa as a friend."
In most cases, experts say, talking to an imaginary friend is a normal and healthy behavior. Like the imaginary friend you may have had as a child, Alexa fulfills a need for stable companionship that can be hard to find in adolescence.
"Alexa always answers back," Melton said of her son's friendship. "He knows Alexa will be there to answer him."
And Robin describes Alexa as a "comfort object on days when the outside world seemed especially confusing." She noted that while school relationships have been tricky and unpredictable for her son, Alexa is "a constant."
Some experts and parents also note that a friendship with Alexa can help children practice friendships outside of school -- it's a trial run for the real world.
Robin believes that since her son has became friends with Alexa, his speech has become clearer, and that he's learned to slow down and enunciate so that Alexa can understand him. Scott Ertl, an elementary-school guidance counselor in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, said he's also seen voice assistants have this impact on kids.
This makes intuitive sense: While parents and teachers can generally piece together sloppy English, Alexa won't give you what you want unless you're clear and concise. This pressures children to speak clearly to Alexa, and to practice pronouncing difficult words.
Ertl also notes that kids who struggle socially often use Alexa to practice interacting with others. "They might say, 'Tell me a joke,' and then they can retell the joke to to several friends at school or on the bus that day," he said. It's easy to see how an introduction to the concept of friendship -- and an early experience of what that means -- can be beneficial for some children.
And for older children, more time spent with Alexa might detract from worse potential harms that come from screen and cellphone addiction. A 2016 survey found that half of teenagers felt addicted to their phones, while 78 percent reported checking their device at least hourly. Ashley Daigneault, a Rhode Island tech communications professional and parent to a 5-year-old son, said that Alexa use "bypasses the thing many of us are worried about -- increased screen time."
Fran Walfish, a Beverly Hills family and relationship psychotherapist and author of The Self Aware Parent, believes that children should not make friends with Alexa. Her main objection is that early friendship with Alexa may bring children to expect the same instant, accurate responses from real friends down the line.
"Alexa has taught, or conditioned, kids to expect an immediate response," Walfish said. "Human interactiveness requires patience that allows people a chance to think, process information and retrieve responses. Computers, including Alexa, simply spit out their fastest, best response."
"No matter how friendly her voice sounds, Alexa is still, and always will be, an inhuman electronic sound without feelings, or cognitive or emotional capabilities," Walfish said.
Kristen Bertolero, a special-education professor and inclusion facilitator at the New Jersey Coalition for Inclusive Education, said she would never give a student an Alexa device without supervision. Information from friends, whether in conversation or on the internet, isn't always as objective, or accurate, as that which a child may get from Alexa. According to Bertolero, it's dangerous for kids to get in the habit of accepting Alexa's responses at face value, without asking follow-up questions or attempting to verify the claims.
Does this mean all Alexa friendships are bad? Not necessarily –but it's clearly important that your child understand the ways in which a friendship with a voice assistant differs from a friendship with another child.
Is your child too close to Alexa? Here's a general rule of thumb: Take the technology out. Would you be worried if your child had this relationship with a doll, a stuffed animal or an imaginary friend?
It's unlikely that your kid is at such extreme levels of closeness with Alexa, but there are two red flags you should watch for:
Any indication that Alexa might be "real." Experts and parents generally agree that around age 4, children should understand that Alexa isn't a real person. Mayer and Subrahmanyam both say that if your kid seems to believe Alexa has emotions, or that they're speaking to a living person after that age, that may be a sign of a larger developmental problem.
Alexa cutting into their social time with other children. "Technology – in general – isn't a replacement for parenting or human social engagement," an Amazon spokesperson says. If your child is eschewing real friendships in favor of Alexa, it's time to intervene.
What Can You Do?
The best way manage your kid's Alexa interaction will vary based on the child and family in question. Here are three things you could consider:
Use FreeTime. Amazon's FreeTime and FreeTime Unlimited tools allow you to review and listen to your children's interactions with Alexa, so you can pick up on any danger signs, and get a better understanding of the relationship.
Limit their time with Alexa. Like any technology, it's important to set parameters. Ertl suggests that kids not spend more than 10 to 15 minutes per day talking to Alexa. Erica Hartwig, a wedding photographer and parent to five children, has limited her kids to saying "Alexa" five times per day to make sure they're prioritizing their requests. You can also use FreeTime to set limits on Alexa time, if your kid really isn't getting the message.
Take Alexa away for a short period. A week or a month without Alexa can help your kid refocus and find other places to socialize. "They'll forget about it, and when you give it back, it will be like a brand-new toy," said Hartwig, who has done similar things with other technology for her kids.
Though she'll occasionally have to tell her son "That's enough Alexa for now," Robin E. hasn't yet felt the need to place any limitations on her son's Alexa use. Both she and Melton firmly believe that Alexa is a comforting presence in their sons' lives. But crucially, both parents are certain their children know that Alexa isn't real, that a friendship with Alexa is different from a real friendship, and that Alexa doesn't detract from their human interactions.
Is a friendship with Alexa good or healthy? That's the wrong question. Any friendship, whether with a voice assistant, a doll, or even a human, has plenty of benefits, but also has the potential to become unhealthy for your child. Don't focus on Alexa -- focus on the friendship.