Answers to Parents' Top Questions About Smart Speakers

If you're in the market for a home assistant, learn more about their uses, pitfalls, and privacy issues.

Are smart speakers OK for kids? Will they steal your family's data? Are they listening to you eat dinner? Smart speakers can be cool -- but they're also confusing. Get answers to your most pressing questions about the top home assistants from Apple, Amazon, Facebook, and Google. If you're interested in reading our deep dives on Apple HomePod, Amazon Echo Dot Kids' Edition, Facebook Portal, and Google Home, check out our detailed, hands-on reviews to see how each stacks up in features, from how well they protect kids' privacy to how much data they collect on you.

How well do smart speakers work with kids? Echo, Home, and Portal all offer kids' content from established providers, including Disney, Sesame Street, and Highlights magazine. (HomePod doesn't.) You can use the devices to play games, read audiobooks, recite jokes, provide homework help, and even activate guided Zen meditation for when your kids need to chill out. New stuff is being added to these services all the time, and your kids might enjoy browsing for features on your linked phone app and trying them out with you. It's not unlike shopping for new apps -- it takes time to find what you want, set it up, and figure out how it works. But even without kid-specific games, these assistants can be helpful to kids and families in basic ways, like looking up simple facts, doing math (no cheating on homework!), checking a sports score, and setting a time-out clock. Check out our list of the best Alexa skills for kids, tweens, and teens. 

Are there any hidden costs? You can add many features for free, but you still have to pay for memberships and subscriptions -- for example, to Apple Music, Amazon FreeTime Unlimited, Amazon Prime, Google Play Music, or Spotify. If you're interested in smart home products, including light bulbs, thermostats, and home security systems, be aware that they are more expensive than traditional versions and often require an extra piece of equipment.

What could go wrong? Though each service is trying to appeal to families, the most common uses of smart devices are very practical, adult-oriented activities, like reporting commute times, creating shopping lists, and announcing upcoming calendar events. To make sure kids don't get into trouble using the device's basic tools, you may need to play around with settings (and set some verbal expectations).

  • Raunchy music. Remember, the devices will only play music that's connected to your account. So, to limit explicit lyrics, you should only link services that allow you to set parental controls, such as Amazon Prime Music, Apple Music, Google Play, and Pandora. You'll need to set content filters in the apps themselves.

  • Unauthorized purchases. Make sure kids know to ask for permission before buying things or adding items to your shopping list. You can also prevent unwanted purchases by clicking a few settings in each device's respective apps. In the Alexa app, you can turn off voice purchasing altogether or keep it on but require a PIN for all purchases. In the Google Home app in the Payments section, toggle off Pay with Your Assistant

  • Social risks. Child-development experts and sociologists are warning about the impact interacting with AI has on kids. A kid growing up with a home assistant must learn to use the device's way of interacting, including making demands, having limited conversational abilities, and other traits that don't prepare you for the nuances of human communication. Anytime you introduce a new technology into your home, you'll need to guide kids on how to use it and what the expectations are. It's best to remind kids that even though Alexa doesn't mind if you're rude, parents do.

  • Calling. All of these devices allow you to make phone calls; kids can make phone calls to friends or even strangers without your knowledge. Echo even has an an intercom-like system that lets you "drop in" on other speakers to, for example, let the kids know dinner is ready. With room-to-room Echos, you can start listening immediately -- no one has to answer the call. This is a decent feature if you have elderly relatives living elsewhere that you need to check on. The feature has to be manually enabled for each contact you want to use it with, and if you "drop in" on another home, the receiver can decline the call. Imagine your best friend "dropping in" when you're in the middle of potty training -- no thanks!

Should I worry about privacy? Absolutely. The privacy and security issues related to these devices are complex, evolving, and potentially very serious (and cannot all be covered in this article). If you have accounts on Amazon, Apple, Facebook, or Google, you've already accepted some of the privacy risks of online life. With smart speakers, the same companies that track what you buy, what you watch, where you go online, and even your contacts are right there in your home. And they're listening. Each company offers some privacy settings in its apps (like the ability to delete your command history), and you can turn off the microphone when you don't want it to hear you (although it comes back on when you ask for it, which is weird if it wasn't supposed to be listening).

And the reality is, all of these companies have had problems keeping consumer data private. No company is super transparent about how it gathers, stores, and uses the information it collects. And they all leave open potential future uses for all that data -- essentially getting you to opt in to a future transaction that has not yet been identified. Some experts speculate that the more comfortable people get with the device, the more smart speakers will infringe on your privacy. For example, they could give transcripts of audio recordings to third-party app developers.

What about kids' privacy? This is a huge concern, and no company is thoroughly addressing it. While they all require parental consent for kids' accounts, they still collect information about the littlest members of your household, possibly including matters you'd prefer to keep private, such as medical issues, citizenship status, or problems in school. The companies encrypt that data, and they don't store it forever. But having that information "in the cloud" means it potentially could be used by third parties to whom you haven't specifically given consent. Plus, it makes your information vulnerable to data breaches. 

What else do I need to know? One of the reasons smart speaker companies are vying so strenuously to be your go-to home assistant is because the brand you choose pretty much locks you into that company's products and services. Each company offers a slew of related devices designed for its respective technology universe (for example, Google's Chromecast and Amazon's Fire TV Stick streaming media devices). Each company is also selling the content that plays on those devices, such as Apple Music. Whether you buy a smart speaker is totally up to you. Being an informed customer is the best way to use it safely and get the most out of it.

Updated November 27, 2019