May 11. 2018. Experts and Advocates Caution Parents to Steer Clear of New Amazon Echo Dot for Kids

For Immediate Release

David Monahan, CCFC ([email protected]; 617-896-9397)
Jeff Chester, CDD ([email protected]; 202-494-7100)

Experts and Advocates Caution Parents to Steer Clear of
New Amazon Echo Dot for Kids

Always-on digital devices for children endanger kids’ privacy and deprive them of physical interactions crucial to healthy development

BOSTON, MA — May 11, 2018 — Child development and privacy advocates are urging parents not to buy the new Amazon Echo Dot Kids Edition with Alexa voice technology. Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood (CCFC), the Center for Digital Democracy (CDD), and leading experts say Amazon Echo Dot Kids and its companion FreeTime voice-enabled platform pose significant threats to children’s wellbeing and privacy. The warning comes on the same day U.S. Senator Edward J. Markey (D-Massachusetts) and U.S. Representative Joe Barton (R-Texas) sent a letter to Amazon asking a number of pointed questions about the device, noting “increasing concern about the effects of digital media and technology use among children and teens.” 

The Echo Dot Kids is a candy-colored version of Amazon’s voice assistant, equipped with FreeTime Unlimited, a kid-friendly version of Alexa which connects children with entertainment like movies, music, audiobooks, and video games. FreeTime also offers parental controls, “Premium Alexa Skills from Top Brands” like Nickelodeon, Disney, and National Geographic, and a feature where if children say “please,” Alexa will respond “thanks for asking so nicely.”

“Amazon wants kids to be dependent on its data-gathering device from the moment they wake up until they go to bed at night,” said CCFC’s Executive Director Josh Golin. “The Echo Dot Kids is another unnecessary ‘must-have’ gadget, and it’s also potentially harmful. AI devices raise a host of privacy concerns and interfere with the face-to-face interactions and self-driven play that children need to thrive.”

“Commercially-produced voice-recognition technologies, such as Amazon Echo, are primarily designed to promote products and brands,” said Jeff Chester of CDD. “Amazon is acting irresponsibly by urging parents to unleash an AI-driven Alexa product into their children’s lives, without first ensuring that it will not harm their cognitive and emotional development. Echo Dot Kids is designed to encourage children to give up their personal information so it can drive even more revenues for the E-Commerce colossus.”

This isn’t the first time an AI device for kids has come under fire. Last fall, Mattel scrapped plans for Aristotle, an Echo-like device for young children, after being met with resistance from parents, lawmakers, and experts in child development and privacy who raised concerns similar to those being raised today about the Echo Dot Kids.

“Children already spend too much time immersed in digital technologies at the expense of their emotional growth – the last thing they need is their own AI assistant,” said Dr. Sherry Turkle, Abby Rockefeller Mauzé Professor of the Social Studies of Science and Technology at MIT and author of Reclaiming Conversation. “When we encourage children to form faux-relationships with devices, we undermine their ability to form healthy relationships with people.”

To give parents the feeling that Echo Dot Kids is safe and appropriate for children, Amazon touts parental controls like content filters and time limits. Ultimately, though, the device is designed to make kids dependent on Alexa for information and entertainment. Amazon even encourages kids to tell the device “Alexa, I’m bored,” to which Alexa will respond with branded games and content.

That feature concerns Jenny Radesky, MD, a developmental behavior pediatrician and media researcher at the University of Michigan. “Children’s boredom is important to their cognitive and social-emotional development because it forces them to use their creative thinking skills to figure out what to do next — not be told what to do or think by a parent or a device — and it also gives children practice in tolerating their own (albeit mild) distress,” said Dr. Radesky. “These two skills — creative initiative and distress tolerance — are incredibly important in life success, but may become harder for children to develop if they become accustomed to immediate boredom relief through a virtual assistant or other device.”

Experts are also concerned about the wealth of sensitive data Amazon will collect from children through Echo Dot Kids and FreeTime. “Parents should think twice before installing a corporate surveillance device in their child’s bedroom, particularly given the lack of data protection laws in the United States,” said Kade Crockford, Director of the Technology for Liberty Program at the ACLU of Massachusetts. “Children cannot consent to the type of surveillance a device like this will perform on them. They are too young to understand what it means to provide Amazon and potentially numerous other entities with their sensitive information, or to understand what it means to interact with artificial intelligence.”

Angela Campbell, CCFC Board Member and Director of the Communications and Technology Clinic at Georgetown Law, said Amazon’s failure to make the privacy policies for FreeTime and the Echo Dot Kids readily available is another reason to avoid the device. “Amazon is encouraging parents to bring Echo Dot Kids into the home and spy on their children,” Campbell said. “What information will Amazon collect, with whom will they share it, and for what purposes? Parents are left to guess, since Amazon doesn’t provide clear information on its product pages for Echo Dot and FreeTime.”

Amazon’s press release shows the company wants Echo Dot to be front and center in family communications: “Gone are the days of shouting up the stairs for the kids to come down to dinner. FreeTime on Alexa allows for household announcements, calling, messaging, and Drop In within the home.”

“We know that the single greatest factor in children’s development is their direct interaction with other human beings,” said Pediatrician and CCFC Board member Dr. Dipesh Navsaria. “When we promote products that put a device in between people and encourage electronic interaction rather than face-to-face, we’re doing children, parents, families, and our society a vast disservice. I worry about the unintended consequences of the world of an always-on, artificial device being marketed specifically for parents to ensconce their child within.”

“While we appreciate the steps being taken by Amazon and other tech companies to make their products less harmful for kids, the reality is that they are still harmful,” said Tim Winter, President of the Parents Television Council. “Vaping may be less toxic than smoking tobacco products, but we would hardly encourage kids to vape. Similarly, we should not be pushing digital media products onto children just because they are less harmful than other digital media products. We urge Amazon and other leaders in the tech sector to consider the long-term safety and health of children as they develop kid-friendly versions of their adult-targeted products.”