Earlier this month, Amazon (AMZN) released Echo Dot Kids, the first Alexa-equipped speaker designed specifically for children. Amazon says the device offers safe, fun experiences for kids and “peace of mind” for parents. But parents and caregivers shouldn’t buy it.
Echo Dot Kids is a regular Echo Dot wrapped in a colorful case, presumably to protect it from kindergarteners frustrated by Alexa’s fifth, “I didn’t quite catch that.” It comes loaded with FreeTime Unlimited, a content platform featuring games, audiobooks, alarms, and other branded interactive content from companies like NIckelodeon and Disney (DIS). It also includes a feature where if kids say “please,” Alexa says, “Thanks for asking so nicely!” FreeTime also disables voice purchasing and lets parents set time limits.
Echo Dot Kids does solve some problems—mostly problems created by Amazon. It’s meant to assuage fears that AI assistants will make kids rude, expose them to adult content, or facilitate an avalanche of child-initiated Prime deliveries. It’s not surprising that Amazon’s solution to Echo-enabled problems is “buy another Echo.” But given the problems Echo Dot Kids doesn’t solve, and the new ones it creates, the best solution is not buying an Echo at all.
Amazon brags that when a child says, “Alexa, I’m bored,” Echo Dot Kids will respond with a game or activity. This feels like a win for parents and kids: A child is entertained, and her caregiver can attend to other tasks. But boredom, unfun as it feels, is crucial to healthy development. By finding something to do on their own, kids learn to think creatively and tolerate mild discomfort. According to pediatrician and media researcher Dr. Jenny 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.”
More than that, the “play” offered by FreeTime Unlimited benefits Amazon’s corporate partners much more than it benefits children. Play is how kids learn about the world and their place in it, which is why the best play is open-ended and child-directed. But on FreeTime, play is driven by companies like Nickelodeon, which described Echo Dot Kids as “an exciting new arena for our audience to engage with our brand”—a troublesome thought when you remember that their audience is kids as young as 4 year olds and that “engagement” is brand-speak for “buying stuff.” This kind of branded play is more like interactive marketing, which limits children’s creativity and leads to a host of negative outcomes, including increased family stress (like the kind that happens when your child asks 20 times for that SpongeBob macaroni). A truly kid-safe product would give children the opportunity to play creatively, independently, and free of marketing messages.
And about that peace of mind: Amazon doesn’t make clear what happens to the sensitive information it collects from kids—not just audio recordings, but preferences, activity history, and other data. “Children’s privacy is important to Amazon,” reads the Echo Dot Kids product page, before directing parents to a second page where they must scroll down nine questions to find a link to a third page, Amazon’s Children’s Privacy Disclosure, and scroll to question three before finally seeing that Amazon does share kids’ information, according to the rules laid out in its full privacy notice. But the full notice doesn’t address kids’ data at all. Instead, the section about children links back to the earlier privacy disclosure, completing an ouroboros of non-information that would be darkly funny if we weren’t talking about a device designed to record the goings-on in kids’ bedrooms. And that’s not even getting into the security vulnerabilities of voice-activated AI assistants. How are parents supposed to have peace of mind when they don’t know who has access to their child’s information and recordings of their interactions with Alexa, or what Amazon and their affiliates will do with it?
Maybe most insidiously, Echo Dot Kids normalizes corporate surveillance for very young children. Our personal data is both increasingly valuable and increasingly vulnerable. From Equifax to Cambridge Analytica to Facebook’s report on targeting emotional teenagers, it’s clear that the data economy has consequences that we are only just beginning to understand. Echo Dot Kids exposes kids to this kind of surveillance from nearly birth, making it seem fun, cool, and integral to family life. But how will kids raised in such an environment navigate the consequences, most of which are out of their hands and may not be fully revealed for decades? Will kids raised under the watchful eye of Amazon care about, or even understand, the importance of privacy? What does the future look like when the people who know children best aren’t people at all, but devices designed to extract their data and turn it into profit?
Echo Dot Kids is great for Amazon, a company that’s staked a large part of its future on home listening devices. And it’s great for companies that target children, because it gives them even more influence over how kids play and what they want. But for kids and families, it’s full of risks that are easily avoided by telling Amazon, politely, “No, thanks!”
Melissa Campbell is the communications manager at Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood.