This summer, I witnessed something I never anticipated in a young child. I was visiting a friend’s home who had three young children. They also have Alexa, a smart speaker in their kitchen. His kids are growing up with artificial intelligence around them all the time—smart phones, smart watches, and now smart tech you can order around at home.
And that’s exactly what his kids were doing. These children were barking out orders for Alexa as if they were a military officer. And it was not a pleasant site. I actually heard them yell—saying things like:
“Alexa, you’re stupid.”
“Alexa, I told you to stop it!”
“Alexa, you’re not doing what I told you to do.”
Did anyone see this coming?
The Wall Street Journal unveiled some research recently, saying that this is becoming common among American homes. Amazon’s Alexa and Apple’s Siri are now devices our kids will have in childhood—starting at age one.
“This is new territory for families. For the first time, children who are too young to distinguish fantasy from reality are engaging with devices powered by artificial intelligence. Many see smart speakers as magical, imbue them with human traits and boss them around like a Marine drill instructor, according to several new studies in the past year.”
Although one dad started training his daughter to talk respectfully, he was stunned that Alexa was “turning our daughter into a raging ***hole.” “I still have concerns,” he said. “Cognitively, I’m not sure a kid gets why you can boss Alexa around but not a person.”
Herein lies the problem.
The Dark Side of Our Smart World
Our smart technology is evolving more quickly than we can civilize it. Or, should I say, more quickly than we can civilize ourselves. The Wall Street Journal continues:
“Parents are often apprehensive when they see their 1-year-olds interacting with smart speakers, citing concerns about the impact on their social skills, according to a 2018 study of 75 households at Carnegie Mellon University.”
The problem, as I see it, is that our students may be cognitively advanced (thanks to accessible information as early as preschool), yet socially behind. In fact, modern culture is producing adolescents who are:
- Biologically advanced (We understand nutrition better than ever.)
- Cognitively advanced (We are more informed than ever.)
- Socially behind (We are not teaching our children how to have civil discourse.)
- Emotionally behind (We are failing to develop emotionally resilient kids.)
Sue Shellenbarger writes,
“Children under 4 typically can’t distinguish fantasy from reality. ‘Could Alexa be a small woman inside a machine? To a 3-year-old, absolutely, she could,’ says David Hill, chairman of the American Academy of Pediatrics council on communications and media. Parents can help children learn to test
their perceptions by asking, ‘Have you ever seen anybody who was small enough to fit in there?’ says Dr. Hill, an author and a Wilmington, N.C., pediatrician.”
By older ages, kids do distinguish between real and fantasy, but now there are new challenges to address. It’s been reported that middle school students are confiding in virtual devices (like Alexa) at times when they don’t feel safe confiding in humans. Or, they ask Alexa or Siri for help on their homework, instead of figuring out the problems on their own. The theory is: the device won’t be as critical or judgmental as people usually are. Herein lies the problem:
If a young person gets used to bossing a device around without any pushback, they do not fare well. They may even give up interfacing with peers when they disagree.
It is so much easier to interact with smart technology than with human beings. Why? Because we get to be the boss. And our bossy behavior is more likely to spill over in interactions with peers than with parents, says Solace Shen, co-author of several studies on social robots and a researcher at Robinhood Markets, Inc.
Our Marching Orders
This is one more reason why our schools and families must intentionally teach Social and Emotional Learning (S.E.L.). We can no longer treat this as a luxury. I believe it is as important as reading, writing and
arithmetic. Don’t believe me? Just neglect teaching S.E.L. at your school or in your home and watch what happens. We’ll all see this reality within the next decade, if we fail to teach it now. The following elements should be included in Social and Emotional Learning:
- Respect and manners
- Self and social awareness
- Delayed gratification
- Effective communication