Understanding your child’s digital world – April 2017

  • Post category:News

This month’s blog is all about voice search, one of the fastest developing technologies on mobile devices, and what this means for child development and keeping our children safe online.

Has talking replaced texting? The impact of integrated personal assistants on children

All of a sudden we seem to have stopped texting, clicking and swiping on a screen and we are talking to and conversing with our devices. The development of the conversational interface is forecast to be one of biggest developments in 2017, with predictions that 50% of searches will be voice activated by 2020 (https://searchenginewatch.com/2016/04/25/understanding-intent-through-voice-search/)

We know that most children and young people have a smartphone, many also have their own iPod or tablet and their daily use of these devices is growing year on year – as well as increased use of devices in their bedrooms (see Ofcom’s Children and Parents media report 2016 for the latest statistics https://www.ofcom.org.uk/__data/assets/pdf_file/0034/93976/Children-Parents-Media-Use-Attitudes-Report-2016.pdf )

But HOW children are using search engines is changing – from typing to talking with the growth of voice search digital assistants – and this raises new questions about what we need to do to keep our children safe online.

What are voice search digital assistants?  Here’s a summary of the main ones: 

Siri – Owned by Apple and available on iPhone/ipad/ipod devices, including Apple Watch and Apple TV. It is available on iPhone 4S but is an integral part of iPhone 5 and newer. It can adapt to an individual’s language use and provide individualised search results. It is powered by Bing and users can choose a male or female voice.

Cortana – Owned by Microsoft and available on Windows phone 8.1/Windows 10/Xbox. It is integrated into Microsoft Edge but, like Siri, is also powered by the Bing search engine.

Google Now/Google Assistant – Google Now was first available in 2012 on Android 4.1 devices and newer. Google Now was replaced by Google Assistant on devices from September 2016 and newer. Google Assistant is conversational and can have two-way conversations. It is powered by Google Chrome. 

As well as searching the internet, our personal assistants can call numbers in our contact list, access our calendar, set reminders, save preferences, post to other enabled apps and even book us a table in a restaurant.

How are children using these digital assistants?

To search the internet – “It is quicker than typing and I can explain better what I want to find,” said one young person. “It also gives me a quicker reply and I find information quicker for homework.” 

For Fun – There are hours of hilarity from asking questions such as “what did the Fox say?”, “what noise does a (insert animal) make?” or listening to Cortana answer back to “make me a sandwich” or even “Who am I?” Children often display their existentialist uncertainties. 

For communicating – To send a text or email. “I don’t do text speak anymore; it’s quicker to speak and let Cortana send the text,” said a young person, “and it can send emojis.” 

For company – Sadly, I suspect the use of voice replies, for some children, provides that ‘human connection’ and takes the digital babysitting to another level. This is a poignant video clip about 2 young boys asking Siri to read a bedtime story (and there are many other examples on YouTube) https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=S1gOx00GSjM 

So, where do integrated personal assistants fit with Keeping Children Safe online?

This is an important message and something parents and carers need to be mindful of and spend time re-checking safety settings on their child’s devices. Most voice activated features on mobile devices need to be enabled by linking this to a user account – e.g. an Apple ID account for Siri which requires users to be over 13. Further features can also be adjusted in an iPhone’s settings; Siri can be disabled and there is a feature which can be swiped to ‘turn off access to explicit language’. 

For devices made after 2015, Cortana has been disabled for children who have a child’s Microsoft account (under 13s), but always double check. Microsoft says Cortana checks against the information in the user’s profile and if the current user is under 13 Cortana will refuse to answer the question. Similarly, use of Google Now requires an active Google /Gmail account – again with a minimum age of 13. 

So it’s worth double checking the user information that was provided when the child’s own device/account was set up, whilst bearing in mind these features are likely to be enabled when giving a child an adult’s phone/tablet to use.

It raises a different dimension to children accessing inappropriate information from spelling mistakes to nuances in regional dialect (six/sex), as well as adult verbal content, which may not necessarily be violent or sexual, but can be confusing or traumatic for a child who asks Google “do you love me?”  

We know that children are growing up with technology and understanding its use at a much earlier age (as I presented last month with the National Curriculum information) but children have different understandings, linked to their level of development with regards to reality, and a ‘real’ voice talking back from a device places further questions on this unfolding debate. 

This is a new area of technology for us to learn and be watchful (or listening) for. There is as yet little writing about children’s use of conversational interfaces, and if anyone has any information or questions please get in touch. 

But in the meantime, talk with your child about their use of voice activated searches and spend a few minutes checking that the safety settings on any devices your child is using are compatible with voice search. This can be done via the settings menu/icon or practically by asking Google/Cortana/Siri to “show me/tell me (insert image/content you don’t want child to find!).” 

Thank you for reading this month’s blog.

Lynn Findlay