Earlier this month, a baby boy in the UK said his first word—it was Alexa.
As technology continues to evolve and become more intelligent, people aren’t ignorant about the impact it’s having on children, including privacy and developmental concerns. For those of us born before the advent of smart homes and other smart technology, it’s hard to imagine what it’s like to grow up in this world. “Our data is being used for advertising to better target us, and that leads to a sense of being constantly surveilled,” said Jennifer Shapka, a University of British Columbia professor who studies the impact of the internet on social and cognitive development.
“I’ve had kids say they feel like they’re being watched all the time by cameras, between Alexa and Google Home and other smart home technology,” Shapka said. “Is someone really interested in what’s going on in your living room? Probably not, but there’s this idea that they could be watching.”
Such fears are only further stoked by the susceptibility of smart technology to cyber attack and the fact that companies could potentially get away with something like an internet-connected teddy bear or a digital nanny that’s supposed to develop a relationship with a growing child.
It’s an ongoing game of whack-a-mole, according to David Monahan, campaign manager at Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood. Just as soon as Mattel’s Aristotle (digital nanny) met its end, Amazon released the Echo Dot Kids, which a CCFC press release describes as a “candy-colored version of [its] voice assistant” that connects children with entertainment and offers parental control features. For instance, if children say “please,” Alexa will respond “thanks for asking so nicely.”
But manner lessons or not, this is a device that’s simultaneously collecting kids’ information and selling them things, Monahan added.
Shapka said she’s concerned this sense of being watched at all times could lead to increased paranoia and rates of mental illness among today’s youth. Among the obvious dangers, it also compounds the extreme self-consciousness and sense of being judged adolescents already feel coming of age in our society.
There’s already pressure on teenagers to solidify their brand on Instagram or YouTube, Monahan said, and there’s an appeal to young people around “being famous.” This can result in all sorts of consequences like blind brand loyalty, conformity, impulse-buying and materialism, Monahan said.
College may be the last gasp of childhood, but college kids are especially ripe for targeted ads and insidious forms of surveillance, like ad tracking. “We talk about college students as ‘digital natives’—and yes, the more someone is online, the more data they generate with which to target them,” said Alex Kronman, CEO and founder of flytedesk, a campus advertising platform.
“But on the flip side, today’s college students also grew up avoiding advertising,” Kronman said. “They never experienced TV where you couldn’t fast-forward through the ads—69 percent of them block ads online and 80 percent always or often skip ads on Snapchat. As advertisers have gotten better are targeting ads, college-aged consumers have gotten better at avoiding them.”
Monahan said it’s heartening to hear kids express awareness and reservations around being commodified. This cat-and-mouse game between advertisers and young people will likely continue as long as humans roam the earth, but future generations of children—those lulled to sleep by devices and encouraged to bond with robots—may suffer the most.