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Last week, the Seattle giant debuted a kids’ version of its Echo speaker that features Alexa, its voice-activated digital assistant. The new Echo Dot Kids Edition comes with a year-long subscription to Amazon’s child-friendly FreeTime Unlimited, which has built-in parental controls. The technology, which can also be downloaded onto existing Echos for $2.99 a month, lets parents set time limits on the gadget, filter out inappropriate songs, block news updates, and stop voice-purchasing abilities. FreeTime Unlimited also gives children access to age-appropriate books, music, and movies.
And this past Monday, Amazon announced that Prime members can now sign their kids up for a new book subscription service called Prime Book Box. For $23 a box, the service can run every month, two, or three months. The books will be chosen by Amazon editors, and the selection will be separated by age group (infants to 2, 3 to 5, 6 to 8, and 9 to 12).
It’s obvious why Amazon would aim to cater to parents: As a newfound member of this very blessed category, I can attest that the shopping parent is both discerning and gullible, inventive yet lazy, skeptical but also desperate. We want the best for our kids, but we also want shortcuts, discounts, and, for the love of God, timesavers. As far as profit opportunities go, parents are an opportune target.
Amazon has already wormed its way into the minds of American parents; with more than 100 million paying Prime members, it’s fair to assume a large percentage of them have kids. Amazon has proven it can refill household necessities with the click of a button and send them to you in less than two days flat. It also reliably serves up the best online prices, something its Prime Book Box FAQ addresses when it notes that parents who sign up will save 35 percent on the books that come with the subscription.
Amazon also knows this particular category of shoppers is looking for new and innovative ways to limit screen time. As a spokesperson told TechCrunch, “we want to help Prime members discover great children’s books that will inspire a love of reading.”
With its latest developments, Amazon is positioning itself to be a parent’s best friend — the “Mary Poppins of AI,” as it’s been aptly nicknamed. The Echo Dot Kids Edition comes with a Magic Word feature that will thank children for saying “please” and “thank you.” (This was debuted, seemingly, as a direct response to parents who were concerned that Alexa would turn their kid “into a raging asshole,” and after published research noted that Alexa could have “implications around how children will learn to communicate.”)
Parents can also keep tabs on their kid’s digital habits through the Alexa app, which tracks all the questions their kids are asking, as well as music and books the kids have requested.
Debuting these sorts of products is about profit, sure, but it’s also largely about developing trust — something other notable tech companies are currently contending with. Having a gadget handle parenting responsibilities like censoring music or picking out reading material might be easy, but as Josh Golin of the Campaign for a Commercial Free Childhood pointed out to Adweek, the relationship with Amazon and parents could get murky once an issue like privacy is called into question.
“Amazon may love the idea of children forming a dependence on a branded data-gathering device, but the Echo Dot for Kids raises a host of privacy and child development concerns,” Golin said. “AI devices interfere with the face-to-face interactions and kid-driven play that children need to grow and thrive. The fact that the world’s most powerful retailers and its commercial partners will be constantly collecting valuable data on kids in their own bedrooms and homes is also very troubling.”
According to CNBC, Amazon isn’t creating user profiles for or collecting data from children via the Echo Dot Kids — not yet, anyway. Apparently the company believes a kid’s preference is so fleeting, it won’t be worth gathering individualized data. Still, CNBC notes, “questions and requests to Alexa are sent to Amazon in order for the company to answer them,” and so Amazon will have access to this information one way or another. As Consumer Reports points out, Amazon’s children’s privacy disclosure states that it collects a user’s “name, birthdate, contact information (including phone numbers and e-mail addresses), voice, photos, videos, location, certain activity and device information.”
Just the fact that kids’ information is collected on a digital server is concerning to privacy experts. Just last year, Mattel invented an AI-powered smart speaker and baby monitor it called Aristotle, which had the ability to sing children lullabies and teach them the ABC’s. Mattel killed the gadget in October, giving in to privacy concerns from both the government and customers.
“Parents must consider whether their children are helped or harmed by this form of constant connectivity and weigh the benefits offered by this new technology against the potential privacy concerns these devices continue to present,” Stacey Steinberg, a professor at the University of Florida Levin College of Law and child privacy expert, told Consumer Reports.
There are other concerns. One Mashable reporter mused that this all seems like “Amazon [is] just indoctrinating kids to become future customers,” which, honestly, was probably already going to happen.
As a new mom, I’m not sure how I feel about all this. Trading privacy for convenience seems abhorrent, but on the other hand, I’ve only been a parent for five months, three weeks, and four days, and I’m not sure how my relationship with technology will shake out. The glaring truth, though, is that today kids are exposed to technology at a younger age than ever before. It’s fair to assume parents will likely welcome Amazon’s modifications, even if we are doing it cautiously.