Alexa Doesn’t Have to Make Your Kid into a Raging Asshole

My brother Evan got an Amazon Echo from Santa this year, and his first instinct was to rename it “Grandma.”


Sadly, Amazon dislikes fun – “Alexa” it would remain – but we gladly accepted the challenge to find more innovative ways of exploring the AI’s magical skillset while casting aspersions into the depths of its still-uncanny valley.

Hunter Walk did the same – but because he has a young child at home, his family’s Alexa Abuse posed something of a real problem. In his poetic words:

We love our Amazon Echo. Among other tasks, my four-year-old finds the knock knock jokes hilarious, the weather captivating, the ability to summon songs comparable to magic and Echo to be the best speller in the house. But I fear it’s also turning our daughter into a raging asshole.

You may share Hunter’s fears. Technology is changing how our children learn and develop, and it’s not immediately clear whether the net effect is positive or negative.

In the eyes of my (actual) grandmother, technology is turning our kids’ brains to mush. It’s hijacking their ability to have simple conversations, to delay gratification, and to talk face-to-face. Why would kids interact with people when Alexa and the Internet can fulfill their every need?

The problems that technology poses are well-understood – but reliable remedies to keep the cyberbugs away are hard to come by. There’s the Luddite’s abstention, the Moderate’s strictly limited doses, and the Defeated’s elixir of resignation to our future robo-verlords.

But such reactionary, retrospective critiques are misguided because the past has passed. My children won’t play outside like I did on Tumbleweed Drive, or write middle-school love notes on loose-leaf paper, or understand why I made physical mixtapes for the girl I liked in high school. Those days are not coming back.

And why dwell on what has been lost when we have a window into the future?

Today, I want to think about Alexa as Harbinger. What can she teach us about how to prepare the next generation for a future that will inevitably look radically different from the present?

First, the obvious: kids don’t have to make eye contact with Alexa, and she doesn’t mind if kids are rude, short, or demanding. These trends are echoed in fast-hitting communication apps like Snapchat and Messenger. Should parents worry that technology is making their children less social adept?

I think not, because face-to-face conversation will be less important in the future. My elementary school taught me cursive and said that it would be the only accepted form of writing in adult life. In retrospect, my time would have been better spent focusing on digital communication. What if our schools taught kids how to write compelling and well-formatted emails, or how to curate their social media accounts? Ambitious and forward-thinking educators could even use technology to reach students who don’t feel comfortable talking aloud in the classroom.

Even the best digital communication is still intermediated, however, so concerns of empathetic distancing are real. This is not a cause for anti-technology resistance. To the contrary, it’s an opportunity. We shouldn’t worry that our children won’t talk to each other face-to-face – we should instead prepare them to be empathetic and engaged even once most of their interpersonal contact comes either intermediated through, or (as in the case of Alexa) directed towards, technology.

Could we program Alexa to have “emotions,” promoting an inorganic development of emotional intelligence?

My grandma also worries that my siblings and I can’t delay gratification, and she’s not exactly wrong – AmazonPrime is amazing(ly taxing on my bank account), and reading short-form content on Facebook and Twitter has impacted my ability to read a normal book without distraction.

But again: what if we are permanently turning into a short-term society? Alexa is the ultimate time-saver – our wish is her command – and other tech similarly minimizes the time we need to spend to get what we want. There is no use in resisting such innovations, because again: they are here to stay. How, then, can we prepare children for a world in which many of their needs are met on demand?

In that world, our children will need to master using the “here and now” to prioritize activities that create lasting value. It’s rewarding to get 100 likes on Instagram, but that buzz only lasts as long as the dopamine hit. Our challenge, then, is to find ways that technology can help children organize short-term, daily, incremental activities towards the achievement of long-term goals.

Could we program Alexa to ignore our commands until we spend time working towards our goals?

These concerns – and many others like them – are important to analyze. But I will conclude here with a question larger than any particular vice or virtue: could technology change the way that children develop values? Specifically, what happens when children go to Alexa, rather than Mom or Teacher, with questions about how the world works? We have to teach children not only skills, but also values to guide their decision-making. How can we do so in the digital age?

My preferred solution is to get ahead of Alexa and the technological wave it represents – to embrace its transformative power and judo-move its considerable momentum into productivity towards helping our children succeed. We can’t look to the past to guide our thinking here, and we can’t lament. Only a proactive approach will do – because technology won’t help us live by our values unless we first ask it to do so.

Jordan Shapiro, a PhD and Senior Fellow for the Joan Ganz Cooney Center, a research and innovation lab focused on educating children, put it well:

[Parents often ask:] “Aren’t you afraid that after they learn from a video game kids won’t be willing to pick up books?” I’m shocked by the absurdity of the question… [and] the assumption that technology is stronger than the humans that created it. No, I’m not afraid. I assume it is adults’ responsibility to teach children value systems… We need to start taking responsibility for ourselves.