Can virtual assistants like Siri or Alexa affect communication in childhood?

Talking to a virtual assistant is like talking to a robot. In the middle of childhood, accessing these tools can be very exhilarating.

Can the interaction with these tools affect children who are still developing their communication skills. A study from the University of Washington, United States, deepened the subject.

Analyzing children’s communication with robots

The research team recruited 22 Seattle families to participate in a five-stage study. All this was done before the pandemic, so one child and one parent per family participated in the work sessions, plus a researcher on duty.

In the first stage, the participating children interacted with a tablet that presented an animated character who spoke, presenting the transcript of their interventions on the screen. The voice of the avatar (which could be an animated robot or a cactus) corresponded to a synthetic voice manipulated by another researcher not present in the room, who could hear the responses and reactions of the child.

As the dialogue began, the avatar displayed on the tablet told the children: When I am speaking, sometimes I start to speak very slowly. You can say ‘bungo’ to remind me to speak fast again ».

After a few minutes of conversation, the application began to periodically slow down his spoken interventions, until the child pronounced “bungo” to return to normal speed. As this was the first session, this “virtual” agent reminded his child interlocutors to use the control word, if necessary. The exercise was repeated until the participant used the word “bungo” at least three times.

At the end of this stage, all the children learned to use the aforementioned action word and among those, 64% recalled using it the first time the avatar spoke more slowly.

In a second instance, the exercise was repeated, but without indicating the instructions on the word “bungo” at the beginning. The dynamics lasted until each child said the word five times or until 5 minutes of slowed-down speech passed by the avatar, depending on each case. After this session, 77% of the children used the word “bungo” successfully.

In another stage, without the presence of the researcher, only 19 parents participated. The exercise consisted of holding a dialogue, in which the parents slowed down their voices at some random moment, without anticipating the instructions on “bungo”. Of the children who completed this part, 68% used that word in conversation with their parents.

This phase presented varied reactions. While some of the children reacted in a good mood, enthusiastically interrupting their parents, another group expressed hesitancy or frustration, questioning their parents why they spoke like robots.

Subsequently, the investigator returned to the room, to have a conversation similar to that previously held with the parents. Here only 18% of the 22 participating children used “bungo” with the researcher. All omitted direct questions towards the

“The children showed a really sophisticated social awareness in their transference behaviors”said Alexis Hiniker, lead author of the study. “They saw the conversation with the second agent as a place where it was appropriate to use the word bungo. With parents, they saw it as an opportunity to bond and play. And then, with the researcher, who was a stranger, they took the socially safe route of using the more traditional conversational rule of not interrupting someone who is speaking to you.added the teacher from the UW School of Information.

The final stage of the study included analyzing what would happen outside the study environment, so they asked the parents to repeat the dynamics at home for the next 24 hours. 20 parents tested this at home and 11 reported that the children continued to use the word “bungo”. Those who initially took it with humor, continued the game; while the most skeptical asked their parents to stop acting like robots or simply refused to respond.

“There is a very deep feeling for children that robots are not people, and they did not want that line to blur”Hiniker said. “So for the kids who didn’t mind bringing this interaction to their parents, it became new to them. It wasn’t like they were starting to treat their parents like a robot. They were playing with them and connecting with someone they love. “.

Although this research rules out a really harmful influence on children, given the demonstration that they conceive the differences between the virtual and the real, Hinker pointed out that these dynamics could subtly influence the habits of children, such as the use of a particular type of language or conversational tone.

Regarding this topic, it is always worth remembering that in the case of children, interaction with these technologies, especially if they are linked to the Internet, should be supervised by adults.

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Lenny Li

I started to play with tech since middle school. Smart phones, laptops and gadgets are all about my life. Besides, I am also a big fan of Star War. May the force be with you!

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