Should you let your kid have a smart speaker?

Should you let your kid have a smart speaker?
Should you let your kid have a smart speaker?

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Not long ago one of my son’s best friends ordered a $250 smart lighting system from Alexa on the Amazon Echo Dot he had in his bedroom. A few weeks later he showed another friend how to make purchases on her Echo Dot. The kids were about 5-years-old at the time. Another friend’s kid learned how to order pizza from Alexa, while still another ordered a functional backhoe. Thankfully, the latter got an alert before they were surprised by a $5,000 delivery.

To kids, a smart speaker is “magic.” To parents, these are cautionary tales that if there’s an opportunity for a kid to use technology in the wrong way, they are going to gleefully seize the moment.

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The truth is, a smart speaker can be an excellent smart device for young kids and older kids alike. There are, of course, things to think about and possibly learn before you purchase one, but smart speakers are nothing to be afraid of. With the right guidance, owning one can not only be a helpful parenting tool, but it can be a positive technological journey that is backhoe (and other foibles) free.

We spoke with tech expert and author of Outsmarting Your Kids OnlineAmber Mac, and Scott Steinberg, author of Parenting High Tech Kids, to get insight on how to ensure that when you give your child a smart speaker, it’s a positive experience and a helpful entry into the world of technology.

What is a smart speaker?

The Google Nest has loads of parental controls you can get acquainted with
The Google Nest has loads of parental controls you can get acquainted with

First things first: A smart speaker is a voice-activated, hands-free way to control other smart devices in your home, like smart lights and plugs, using a built-in voice assistant. The speakers are setup via the companion app on your phone or tablet.

What you do with that control can vary. You can let it connect to other smart devices within the home, like lights, lamps, plugs, and more—or you can make it an isolated device that’s used for one sole purpose.

Many smart speakers have built-in voice assistants and can be programmed to be an alarm clock, a music streaming service speaker, an intercom between different rooms throughout the home, or a whole host of other things depending on the speaker’s capabilities and your technical know-how. Some also have the ability to make calls between friends and family.

What are the best smart speakers for kids?

Smart speakers come in a variety of forms and sizes, but smart speakers that are designed for kids are typically desktop-sized.

The most popular is the Amazon Echo Dot Kids’ Edition, which comes in fun animal and character styles and even has kid-friendly stands to enhance their appeal.

The Google Nest and the Google Nest Mini are also top contenders. Both come in cute colors and are equipped with thoughtful parenting controls.

All three allow for parental controls and personalization, and they all have useful and engaging kid- and family-friendly features.

“The best smart speakers for kids are ones that you can customize to set to your own personal safety preferences,” says Mac.

Thankfully, the big players in the world of smart speakers have both noticed the usefulness of smart speakers for kids, and the need to make them safe. Google and Amazon, in particular, are continually updating and improving their parental control capabilities.

Should I let my kid have a smart speaker?

Teach kids to be critical of the information they may get from a smart speaker
Teach kids to be critical of the information they may get from a smart speaker

For the most part, the answer is yes—if you think it’s the right choice for your family. When, how, and which smart speaker you choose will all come into play when making your decision.

The first thing Mac and Steinberg both recommend, and what seems to be a common theme whenever assessing if your kid is ready for any sort of technology, is you should first take stock of how responsible your child is when they aren’t using technology.

“One 8-year-old kid will absolutely be responsible enough to have a smart speaker in their room. Another kid exactly the same age won’t be,” says Mac. “It’s not so much about age as it is about the child and where they’re at maturity-wise.”

Is your kid reliable and trustworthy? Do they make good choices and do they have good impulse control? If the answers are yes, then they are probably ready to have a smart speaker in their room. If not, you may want to start with a smart speaker in a common area of the house.

Having one in the common area will allow you to model best practices for your kid and help you establish together how the smart speaker is to be used. It will help set a strong foundation of rules—including what's safe and what's not.

Why should I let my child have a smart speaker?

There are definitely benefits to letting your kids have a smart speaker. If you have a younger child, they can cue up stories (essential in my family during bouts of laryngitis when little ones still want a bedtime story), music, games, and other kid-centric entertainment.

For older kids, a smart speaker can be an immediately accessible encyclopedia of information, where kids can access definitions and answers to whatever arcane questions they may have.

According to Mac, speakers can also work for family engagement.

“Smart speakers are an excellent starting point to technology. One of the reasons I like them is they can be something families can engage with together. [Smart speakers] tell jokes, play family games, families can listen to music together, and they can ask questions together. It’s very different from a cell phone or a tablet, where a child is exploring on their own. Using a smart speaker can be very collaborative,” says Mac.

How can I help my child make good choices with their smart speaker?

Both Mac and Steinberg say that the best way to help your child make safe choices about technology is to be a good model and a good listener.

Show technology know-how

Show your child you are educating yourself on the device before giving it to them. Exhibiting conscientious behavior lets a child see that they need to be deliberate and mindful of their use of technology.

Exhibit boundaries

Any new toy can be a bit addictive. Teach restraint. Explain to your child there is a time for having the speaker on and a time for turning it off. Deliberately show them that you are turning off the speaker’s listening mode so it becomes an ingrained habit for them to mimic.

Teach critical thinking

While one of the benefits of a smart speaker is access to almost limitless information, this isn’t without downfalls.

“For any information, you get online you should always reiterate the importance of seeking out numerous sources,” says Mac.

Both Steinberg and Mac say that it’s a good idea to let kids know sometimes search returns can provide factual inaccuracies. Teach them to ask for more than one source of information, if they are going to use their smart speaker for answers to homework questions or for any sort of independent learning.

How can I ensure my child is safe when using a smart speaker?

Our experts advise against having a smart speaker with a screen in a kids' bedroom.
Our experts advise against having a smart speaker with a screen in a kids' bedroom.

Read up

Familiarize yourself with all of the literature that comes with your device. We’d also recommend you read up on reviews and other people’s experiences. The best way to keep technology safe is to do your best to anticipate what issues may arise before you need to deal with them. Plus, when your kid sees you reading up, they know the smart speaker isn’t just a toy; it’s a piece of technology to be taken seriously.

Get savvy

First, read this article on how to set up parental controls. Before you even give the child the speaker, get those controls set up and then take it through a test drive to make sure you feel confident with the technology you are giving them.

Go screenless

Certain smart speakers do have screens and can function as little televisions. This type of smart speaker is called a touch display. While that may seem harmless to start, Steinberg cautions against it.

Don’t open a Pandora’s Box you’ll be unable to close. Keep access to TikTok, Instagram, and YouTube—even YouTube Kids—to common areas or to devices where you can have easier access to a child’s search and viewing history.

“They could be watching YouTube videos, TikTok videos, and engaging in content they may not be ready for. It’s my advice to keep screens that can access YouTube in common areas,” he says.

Absolutely no cameras

Both our experts agree: No good can come of having a camera in a kids’ room.

“Kids are savvy. Video calling is a potential source of concern with unfettered use in their bedroom,” says Steinberg.

Cyberbullying is something we all need to be aware of. Having a camera in a kids’ room can expose them to societal pressures they may not be ready for. If that type of interaction isn’t something a caregiver is aware of, things can get out of hand quickly and that’s a hard thing to back-peddle on once it’s already happened.

While it's worth noting that most devices that have a camera also have a shutter as a privacy measure, but our experts advise against giving that extra layer or responsibility to kids. Taking down that extra boundary of privacy is something our experts advise against. Plain and simple.

Choose a smart speaker with an off-switch

Yes, Big Brother is always listening—at least he is when the smart speaker mic is on. Both Steinberg and Mac say to choose a speaker that has an off-switch on the microphone and they say to teach a child to be mindful of turning that switch off when they aren’t actively using it.

“There is no reason you need a smart speaker listening in when you’re reading to your kid or when they have friends over,” says Steinberg.

While a smart speaker shouldn't be actively listening until you use the "wake word", it's best to play it safe. Alexa speakers also illuminate with a red ring around the bottom giving you a visual cue that the mic is muted. Still, we prefer to err on the side of, "if the mute button isn't on, the speaker could be listening."

There are ways you can protect your kids' privacy when it comes to smart speakers when they aren't actively using them. Our experts advise that you show kids the off switch, teach them to use it, and check in regularly to ensure it's being utilized.

We also advise that you check in and delete voice data regularly. Here is how to do so with Amazon products and with Google products.

Remind your kids to connect safely

The Amazon Echo Kids is made just for kids and comes in adorable kid-friendly designs.
The Amazon Echo Kids is made just for kids and comes in adorable kid-friendly designs.

Yes, a smart speaker can be hacked. That is one of the reasons why it’s so important to teach kids to turn off the microphone when it’s not in use.

It’s also important to make sure everything is password protected, that voice recognition is on, and that recording histories are deleted.

Keep your software up to date

Mac also advises that you stay on top of updates and technology. While your technology should update on its own, it's a good idea to check to make sure your child's device is operating on the most current system.

“Outdated software leaves you and your family susceptible. Stay up to date and, when necessary, upgrade your devices,” says Mac.

It’s also a good idea to recheck your privacy settings once every few months to make sure the settings still appear as you'd like them to.

Whether your should or shouldn't give a smart speaker to a kid is largely subjective, but our experts both think it's possibly the best first tech you can introduce a kid to.

"They can be fun. They can be useful. And one of the things I love about smart speakers is you can't break them. A child can't download a virus or inadvertently destroy them," says Mac. "They are a great learning tool and they are probably my favorite piece of technology that can be a collaborative experience for families to use together."

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This article originally appeared on Reviewed: Should a kid have a smart speaker?