Ditch Amazon Echo, Alexa 'surveillance' devices to protect kids, experts say

Panelists at the American Enterprise Institute discuss the dangers of smartphone technology in Washington, D.C. on January 25, 2019.
Panelists at the American Enterprise Institute discuss the dangers of smartphone technology in Washington, D.C. on January 25, 2019. | Photo: Screengrab/

WASHINGTON — The omnipresence of digital and smartphone technology has yielded youth whose relational skills are stunted, experts say, and it's time to ditch "surveillance" gadgets like Alexa and Amazon Echo.

Author and American Enterprise Institute scholar Naomi Schaefer Riley facilitated a panel discussion last Friday on how to respond to technology's impact on the mental health of children, which she explores in her book., Be the Parent, Please: Stop Banning Seesaws and Start Banning Snapchat.

Social technology and relationship apps like Tinder are designed to lure young people and keep them ensnared in cyberspace and keep them from interacting with other people. The panelists called for regulation of media companies and big tech, and for community efforts bringing awareness to parents.

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"Don't buy an Echo or an Alexa or have any of those things in your home. That's just a surveillance device that earns money for big tech," said Christine Rosen, senior editor of The New Atlantis, in response to a question from The Christian Post about how parents might stay ahead of the curve given how quickly digital technology develops.

"Your children's voices are recorded on there, their behaviors. You'll forget it's on," she continued, explaining that it's not always clear whether those devices are off or on.

"You don't need a smart refrigerator to remind you to get milk. Just keep a list."

Citing guidance from pediatricians, parents need to have conversations with their children, particularly boys, about scourges like pornography, which is now easily accessible at a much earlier age than they would ideally like, Riley said.

"Tell them it's all made up," she suggested, speaking to how parents might speak to older children about internet smut. "It's acting. These people are being paid to do this. It looks real and it's meant to incite your lust but it's not actually how people behave. And if you behave like this in real life, it's not going to go well for you."

Christine Emba, an opinion columnist for The Washington Post, concurred, noting that Echo and Alexa and "all of their friends and compatriots" should not be in your house.

"They're becoming so common that there are children whose first reported words now are 'Alexa'" Emba said.

"That is happening. That is a thing. And it's weird and scary. And it's inappropriate. And yet, it's there."

Emba added, "We use this technology, we use these devices to make our own lives easier, to be able to reach our kids. [But] we have to take a step back and make our lives harder on purpose."

The columnist shared a personal anecdote that "dumb phones" are making a comeback and are "almost a little bit hip." She has two friends who scrapped their smartphones and managed to acquire flip phones.

While it is annoying, because in order to meet them she has to call them since text messages between the old and new phones does not compute, it's ultimately a good thing because she's forced to figure out where her friends are, she explained.

Making life harder and more frustrating in this way, "enforces these conversations and these practices that we really need."

"You have to get over the hump, I think, of wanting to do the easiest thing. And take charge of your lives and that of your kids."

Brooke Shannon is spearheading a movement to stem the tide of ills like attention problems, corporate monitoring, and physical and emotional harms emanating from what some call “screen” culture.

Her campaign, Wait Until 8th, urges parents to delay giving their children a smartphone at least until the eighth grade. Across the country, communities of parents are pledging to do this together in order to decrease the pressure within the child’s grade to have a smartphone; if a child is the only one who goes without a phone it can be socially isolating. 

The site notes that smartphones impair sleep, interfere with relationships, increase risk for anxiety and depression, puts children at risk for cyberbullying, and that tech executives ban them for their own children.

Shannon has an 11-year-old, a 10-year-old, and a 6-year-old, and has already talked with her children about tough topics like suicide, sex trafficking, and porn, and what to do in situations when these horrors come through pixilated screens.

"When you take out all that awkwardness and you dive right in, and you talk to you kids about that, they're going to consider you an authority on that, and they're going to come to you when they have a question," Shannon said.

These issues should not remain clouded in secrecy, she said, because then children get the impression that it's wrong to approach their parents about it, when they are precisely the people with whom they should converse.

The increased concern and conversation about the invasive role technology is playing in the lives of everyone comes amid news that Facebook had set up an app called Facebook Research, which paid users up to $20 per month to install a virtual private network which then tracked their data.

The social media giant shut down the app mere hours after defending it this week.

"It enlisted 13 to 17 years olds to take part in the program, who had to get a parental consent agreement signed through a tick box. Facebook said less than 5 percent of the participants were teenagers," Business Insider reported Wednesday.

"It wasn't 'spying' as all of the people who signed up to participate went through a clear onboarding process asking for their permission and were paid to participate," a Facebook spokesman told the outlet.

In a July 2017 CP interview with Danny Huerta, a licensed clinical social worker and vice president of parenting and youth at Focus on the Family in Colorado Springs, Colorado, he said that so many are "seeking authenticity and our brain does not register online things as authentic, and there are a lot of comparisons that take place" within the human psyche.

Such constant mental comparisons "create a sense of depression, anxiety, and stress," he said.

Huerta's words from 2017 appear to have proven prescient.

"The fact that virtual reality and augmented reality is around the corner, and Apple and Google and everybody is working on that because that is the next moneymaker, we have to be parents, I believe, to create kids that can think and understand why there are boundaries," he told CP.

British author Sue Palmer explains in the 2016 update of her 2006 book, Toxic Childhood: How the Modern World is Damaging Our Children and What We Can Do About It, that at the beginning of the 21st century many books were written about human happiness, all of which confirmed what extensive scientific research has shown: that happiness comes not from having more money but from successful personal relationships with friends and family and in the local community.

"This finding is, or course, at odds with the interests of global corporations. To increase their wealth and power, they need us to believe that the true route to happiness is through shopping. Hence the concerted drive of marketeers, aided by the image of the 'perfect' lifestyle beamed through these ubiquitous screens, to make us judge each other's worth in terms of appearance, possessions, and other indicators of material wealth."

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