Smart speakers are amazing technological tools. They make life convenient, keep the family organized and connected, and make it easy to hold impromptu dance parties. However, there are a few concerns that accompany owning a smart speaker in a house with kids, specifically regarding privacy and explicit content.
In this edition of the Troomi Blog, we’re looking at the pros and cons of owning a smart speaker and dissecting which one is the best smart speaker for kids.
Let’s make like a kid at the swimming pool on a summer day and jump right in!
The Benefits of Smart Speakers
In a nutshell, smart speakers are voice-controlled virtual assistants. Thus, they shine brightest when they’re keeping you and your family organized. Smart speakers function as timers, weather reporters, traffic cams, and alarm clocks. You can even connect them to your calendar so your family gets where they need to be, when they need to be there.
Surprisingly, studies show that smart speakers can also help children and adults alike develop stronger language skills. Virtual assistants respond to vocal requests, meaning that your child has to speak to the smart speaker to get it working. This helps hone their question-asking and request-making abilities. The English language is complicated, and kids who struggle with pronunciation can even ask smart speakers how to pronounce a word by spelling it out! Where was this feature when I was learning words like pneumonia and yacht?
In addition to their organizational and developmental benefits, smart speakers are a great source of screen-free entertainment. Many smart speakers come preloaded with audiobooks, music, and games. Childhood tech addiction is an increasingly prevalent concern which smart speakers may help combat by lessening the time kids spend on screens.
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Finally, smart speakers make meditation and mindfulness extremely accessible for kids. If your kiddo is feeling stressed and anxious after a long day at school, a short breathing exercise can help calm their mind and recenter their attention. All they need to say is, “Hey Google, help me relax,” and the smart speaker takes it from there.
The Drawbacks of Smart Speakers
We’ve talked about the positives effects smart speakers can have on our kids, but what about the negatives? Are smart speakers really safe for children?
It’s so convenient that virtual assistants respond to vocal requests—however, this means that your smart speaker is always listening. A study detailed in Consumer Reports states that, “smart speakers are designed to listen for a wake word,” and that “these devices wake up all the time when they shouldn’t, which can potentially constitute a privacy risk.” While companies don’t deliberately record your family, smart speakers can be hacked to record and send conversations back to the hacker after the interaction has ended. Kinda spooky, right?
Privacy concerns aren’t the only drawback of smart speakers. Virtual assistants are fun and flashy, potentially distracting kids from more important things like homework and household chores. Kids may also become dependent on the virtual assistant for help with homework, as most smart speakers can answer simple math and language questions. Assistants may help kids understand their homework a little better, but they also may rob your child of important learning opportunities.
Finally, smart speakers may inadvertently use explicit language inappropriate for young children. When responding to questions, smart speakers like the Google Nest Mini typically read out the first answer that appears on Google. If the answer contains swear words or explicit terminology, the virtual assistant may fail to edit them out.
What’s the Best Smart Speaker for Kids?
Now that we know a bit more about smart speakers, let’s look at some specific examples to determine which is the best smart speaker for kids. We’re going to look at three options: the Amazon Echo Dot Kids, the Google Nest Mini, and the Siri HomePod Mini.
Amazon Echo Dot Kids
If you’re looking for a kid-friendly smart speaker, the Amazon Echo Dot Kids is a great option. Kids can use the Echo Dot to “play music, read stories, and call approved friends and family.” It comes in two fun designs (a panda or tiger), and includes a year of Amazon Kids+, a monthly subscription service which gives kids access to age-appropriate audiobooks, games, and educational activities. Be careful: the subscription automatically renews after a year, so make sure to turn it off if you don’t want to pay that $2.99/month fee.
A cool feature of the Echo Dot Kids is the Amazon Parent Dashboard and the accompanying parental controls. Using parental controls allows you to determine just how your child uses the smart speaker. You can place time limits and disable unfavorable features, like voice purchasing and explicit songs. You can even turn off your Echo Dot Kids microphone with one simple button, ensuring that your private conversations remain just that—private.
Google Nest Mini
The Google Nest Mini is the smart speaker that I use. It’s cheap, easily portable, and comes in four different colors. The speaker uses Google’s SafeSearch services to find answers to questions—even obscure ones like “What year did Joni Mitchell’s Court and Spark come out?” The speaker is similarly connected to a wide array of Google services like Google Translate, Gmail, and Google Calendar. Older kids who use Google for schoolwork may benefit from the inherent interconnectivity.
Speaking of connectivity, the Google Nest Mini uses Google Family Link to help you set digital rules for your child’s device. You can personalize which apps your child accesses on their speaker and when they use them. These parental controls also let you see what your child is using their speaker for, helping you protect them from unsavory material.
So how kid-friendly is the Google Nest Mini? Pretty friendly!
Apple HomePod Mini
Finally, the third smart speaker we’re looking at is the Apple HomePod Mini. While the other speakers prioritize productivity and humor, the HomePod Mini is all about sound. It features some pretty stellar speakers for such a small device! That’s not to say that it doesn’t help with productivity, however. It still answers questions and functions as a personal assistant just like the rest, and parental controls ensure that your kids aren’t exposed to inappropriate material.
However, the Apple HomePod Mini requires integration with other Apple devices like an iPhone or iPad, even to get it set up. It’s also the most expensive option, so if your kids don’t have an iPhone (because they have a super cool Troomi phone) or don’t care about audio quality, this may not be the speaker for you.
It’s hard to say definitively what the best smart speaker for kids is. If you’re parenting younger kids, I’d recommend the Amazon Echo Dot Kids, due to the free year of educational content from Amazon Kids+. When it comes to older kids and teens, check out the Google Nest Mini—the interconnectivity of Google services makes organization a breeze.
Smart speakers are a complex piece of tech. They can inspire productivity and help kids answer difficult questions, but the privacy and content concerns certainly shouldn’t be overlooked. Before you purchase a smart speaker, make sure to do some research and determine which option is the best for you.
When you’re done, come on back to the Troomi Blog for some more tips on how to parent in a technological world. See you soon!