Science & Technology

Alexa, please! Study suggests kids know how to talk differently to virtual assistants and humans

Children in the study interacted with different animated images. (UW Image)

Kids taught to say “Bungo” to get a smart assistant to speed up know they are talking to a robot and don’t use the same tone with humans, according to a new study.

The study, led by University of Washington associate professor Alexis Hiniker, shows that children express themselves differently to robots and humans and have nuanced views of social interactions.

Parents have expressed concerns that the abrupt tone used to summon and interact with assistants such as Alexa could spill over into children’s interactions with humans. The study doesn’t directly address this question but provides some reassurance that kids use different social behaviors when addressing an assistant, their parents or strangers.

UW assistant professor Alexis Hiniker (Jacobs Foundation Photo)

“Kids can certainly pick up habits from assistants like Alexa, but there are many factors that determine how they treat other people,” Hiniker told GeekWire in an email, “These findings suggest it’s too simple to assume that everything they learn from a device will show up in their interactions with the people around them.”

Hiniker is an assistant professor in the UW information school who studies the ethical design of ubiquitous technologies and invents alternatives. She is also director of the UW’s User Empowerment Lab which studies the “love-hate” relationships people have with technology, according to its website.

The new study recruited 22 families from the Seattle area. Children were taught to use the word “Bungo” when interacting with a voice agent through an interface on a tablet. The instructions were delivered by a hidden researcher who talked with the children via a synthetic voice, visualized as an animated image.

When the voice slowed down, “Bungo!” would make it speed up. The kids were then introduced to a new interface with a new image. Though the new agent did not teach the kids to say “Bungo” the voice did speed up when a kid used the word. 77% of kids figured out this connection.

Kids were in the room with their parent and a second researcher during these first parts of the study.

The key parts of the experiment came next, first with only a parent present. When parents intentionally began speaking slowly, 68% of the kids used “Bungo” with them. About half of the kids continued using the word at home during the next 24 hours in response to slowed speech, but their interactions were often in a playful or joking.

The study also found that kids were more reserved with strangers, testing their responses when the researcher returned to the room. Only 18% of 22 children used the word “bungo” and none commented on slow speech of the researcher.

“The kids showed really sophisticated social awareness in their transfer behaviors,” Hiniker said in a UW press release. “They saw the conversation with the second agent as a place where it was appropriate to use the word ‘Bungo.’ With parents, they saw it as a chance to bond and play. And then with the researcher, who was a stranger, they instead took the socially safe route of using the more traditional conversational norm of not interrupting someone who’s talking to you.”

Researchers at the University of Michigan and George Mason University were also involved in the study, as was a researcher at the language-learning company Duolingo. None of the other researchers received industry support as part of the study, which was reported in June at the 2021 Interaction Design and Children conference.

It’s still possible that agents like Siri or Alexa might influence children’s habits in subtle ways, notes Hiniker.

That’s led to the introduction of features in devices such as Amazon’s Echo Dot Kids that encourage politeness — Echo Dot will say “thanks for asking so nicely,” or something similar when a child says please.

Hiniker noted that kids were excited in the study to try out a new conversational strategy with their parents that they learned from the device, suggesting that designers could come up with similar ways to promote communication with children and their caregivers.

“Parents know their kid best and have a good sense of whether these sorts of things shape their own child’s behavior. But I have more confidence after running this study that kids will do a good job of differentiating between devices and people,” said Hiniker in the release.



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