Article on impact of voice assistants on children is not ‘new research’

4 October 2022
What was claimed

New research says voice assistants could hinder children’s social and cognitive development.

Our verdict

The journal article mentioned does not contain any original research on the impact of voice assistants on the development of children. It is an opinion piece, and the evidence it cites has been challenged by experts.

“The rapid rise in voice assistants including Google Home, Amazon Alexa and Apple’s Siri could, new research suggests, have a longterm impact on children’s social and cognitive development.”

A journal article commenting on the possible effects of smart voice control devices on children has received coverage in a number of news outlets, including Daily Mirror and Mail Online. But reporting in The Guardian incorrectly described the journal article as “new research”, when it is actually an opinion piece.

The article, published in the Archives of Disease in Childhood journal, claims that “the advanced artificial intelligence driving the devices as well as the human-sounding voices have attracted concerns that the assignment of mental and social attributes to the devices may negatively affect children's cognitive and social development.”

The Guardian described the article as “new research” and a “study”, which may give the impression that the findings were based on original scientific evidence. It covered the article both online and in print.

However, the article in question was published as a “Viewpoint” in the journal on 27 September, and does not contain any original research on the impact of voice assistants on the development of children. The journal’s submission guidelines characterise “Viewpoint” articles as “argument-led but evidence-based” and state that they “should not present original research data.”

Full Fact contacted The Guardian, which has since changed its online article, saying: “This article was amended on 28 September 2022 to clarify that the concerns about the long-term effect of devices were raised in a journal article, not in a new research paper”.

One of the article’s authors, Anmol Arora confirmed to Full Fact that it is a “commentary piece” and does not present primary research, and said he had clarified this when speaking to journalists.

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Questions over article’s evidence

The article has also drawn criticism from experts in the field.

Speaking to the Science Media Centre, Dr Amy Orben from the MRC Cognition and Brain Sciences Unit at the University of Cambridge said: “This academic paper does not provide any novel evidence about the impact of voice assistants on children. It is an opinion piece, and its argument rests largely on news reports and anecdotal evidence, citing extremely little scientific evidence.

“Most concerns that are highlighted by this article are only backed up by news reports, and not by scientific evidence. Scientifically, little is known about the impact of voice assistants on children. The impacts of voice assistants are probably mixed and very dependent on how they are used by children.”

Bath Spa University psychology professor Pete Etchells said: “This is an opinion piece, published in an academic journal, that does not appear to have been externally peer-reviewed, and provides little in the way of convincing primary research to support its arguments. The conclusions should therefore be treated critically and with extreme caution.”

Mr Arora, told us the article “was highlighting the potential risks of the devices but also sought to clarify that there is great positive potential for these devices to be used by children as well. 

“The long term effects of the devices are still unknown, they could be positive or negative, and arguments in both directions are encouraging.”

Image courtesy of Andres Urena

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