It’s the worry every parent has when their children go online, “Will they be safe?” Amazon Echo Plus, also known as the voice assistant Alexa, is a voice-controlled smart speaker and intelligent personal assistant kids of all ages can enjoy using to access the Internet. While Alexa may be just a speaker, there is a tremendous variety of content available and many actions it can perform.
Given what a powerful device Amazon’s Alexa is, parents may wonder if it is safe for their children to use.
So is Alexa safe for kids? When the right steps are taken, the answer is yes. Amazon has provided parents with the ability to configure their Alexa devices to ensure children will be protected, yet still, enjoy using it.
What are those risks? and what can we do to eliminate them for more peace of mind. Lets get into that next.
What are the risks?
Before disabling features, parents need to familiarize themselves with what Alexa can do that may put their children at risk. Kids are often more tech-savvy than their parents, and word of “cool tricks to try” spreads between kids on the playground like wildfire. Here are some of the most important features to be aware of.
- Explicit Lyrics
One of Alexa’s most popular features is the ability to stream music. A variety of music streaming services can be linked to your account. Parents should be aware of which accounts have been linked to their Alexa devices and any restrictions regarding music content need to be configured from within the streaming service app.
- Shopping Sprees
Not only can you make Amazon purchases directly from the Alexa app, but also purchases can be made using voice control. Super convenient…until your 8-year-old tells Alexa that he wants a Nintendo Switch or inadvertently orders something with adult content. Parents will need to weigh convenience against the risk of unwanted surprises delivered to their doorstep.
- Calling and Messaging
Once synced with a cell phone, using the voice-control feature, Alexa can call friends and family from the contracts list. Unfortunately, if that list includes business associates, the school, or the local police department, Alexa can call them as well. Once feisty little 5-year-old figures this out, it could become a problem.
- Drop In
Drop In is a feature that allows two or more Alexa devices to function much like an intercom. However, this is not restricted to the Alexa devices in your own home or on your account. It can also be enabled for Alexa devices in other people’s homes. It might be great for the kids to be able to ask Alexa to drop in on Grandma, but it also means Grandma can drop in on you.
- Skype Calling
Unlike with Calling and Messaging which use your phone’s Contact’s List, When Skype to Phone calling is enabled, Alexa can dial any number in more than 150 countries. Parents choosing to enable this feature should seriously consider the risk that their child may call “friends” they have met online.
Amazon’s Alexa has seen remarkable growth since it was first released. According to Voicebot.ai as of early 2019, there were more than 70,000 skills developed specifically to work with Amazon Alexa. Not all of which are going to be kid-friendly and third-party developers are continually developing new ways in which to use the device. Parents should be diligent about keeping tabs on what skills have been enabled on their devices and what new features may have been implemented.
Notifications are not so much a risk as they can be annoyances and spoilers. Alexa may make a notification sound past a child’s bedtime. Worse, Alexa may just announce that your order of a LOL Surprise Doll was just delivered, ruining a birthday surprise. No LOLs there.
For families who already own an Alexa device, avoiding these issues is as simple as using the tips below to set up parental controls. Those who are considering purchasing an Alexa device may want to opt for the Amazon Echo Dot Kids Edition, conveniently designed to be child-friendly with built-in parental control.
Making Kids Safe
Once familiar with Alexa’s features, it’s time to configure the device. But with just a few buttons on top of your Alexa speaker, it’s not immediately obvious how to set it up to do anything, let alone keep your kids safe while using it. Parental controls are found within the Amazon Alexa apps available for both iOS and Android devices. If you have more than one Alexa, you’ll need to set up controls on for each device individually. The first thing to do is to enable FreeTime.
After opening the Amazon Alexa app, select the three-line hamburger icon in the upper left corner of the home screen. At the bottom of the list, select Settings, followed by Device Settings. This screen will list all of the smart home devices connected to your Alexa, as well as all of the Alexa devices associated with your account. Select the first Alexa you wish to configure.
From this screen, about midway down is FreeTime. Select it and toggle to enable. Here you will be able to block explicit music from being played, as well as turn off features such as Calling and Messaging, and Drop-In. Once enabled, you can set up your children’s individual profiles from within the Parental Dashboard and set specific controls for each child.
FreeTime also allows parents to control when and for how long their children are using the device. For little night owls who can’t help themselves from playing late into the evening, parents can configure what time of day Alexa may be used and have the device pause itself at bedtime.
- FreeTime Unlimited
FreeTime Unlimited is a for-fee service, which provides additional parental controls. Starting at $2.99/month, FreeTime Unlimited allows parents to control how their child uses devices throughout the Amazon ecosystem, as well as providing access to additional child-friendly content.
The Daily Limits feature lets parents restrict the amount of time kids are performing activities on Amazon devices, such as listening to music on Alexa or watching videos on an Amazon Kindle. Parents will be able to monitor activity on Alexa and will have access to reports detailing their child’s use.
- Enabling and Disabling Features
Thankfully, the most concerning of Alexa’s features such as Drop In and Skype Calling must be enabled from the app before using. If you have enabled either and are reconsidering, you can easily disable it by again going to the app and reconfiguring the settings under Communication. Disabling Drop In can be individually set for each Alexa device you own.
- Voice Purchasing
There have been dozens of stories in the news about small children going wild with voice ordering from their parents Alexa device. It’s adorably shocking until it happens to you.
The ability to place an Amazon order directly from your Alexa device may be enabled, disabled, be set to require a 4-digit PIN code to confirm the purchase, or configured to only accept orders from recognized speakers. This may be done under Settings, then Alexa Account, then Voice Purchasing. This is also where your voice code can be changed if compromised by little ones with really good hearing.
You’ll be able to configure which notifications you receive from the Settings main menu. Toggling will turn delivery notifications off or on and a second selection allows you to prevent Alexa from announcing what is in that package just delivered to your door.
- Do Not Disturb
You can also restrict Alexa from making any disturbing sounds by either putting the device into a Do Not Disturb mode or scheduling specific hours when your Alexa device will automatically go into a Do Not Disturb mode. This is found under Device Settings.
- Amazon Echo Dot Kids Edition
Parents who purchase the Echo Dot Kids Edition will find that controls for many of these risks have already been implemented into the device. Another benefit of this version of Alexa is that it comes with one year of free FreeTime Unlimited service.
- Turning the Microphone Off
Of course the most foolproof safety measure for Amazon Alexa or any smart speaker is to simply turn the microphone off. This disables the device from both listening and following any instructions. It’s super easy too. Just push the button on top of the device. The light ring will glow red, reminding you that it’s turned off.
In the end, however, it’s best not to rely parental controls alone. Have frequent conversations with your kids about restrictions, usage limits, and Internet safety. Ultimately, the best method for keeping kids safe when using Alexa or any internet-connected technology is always going to be parental supervision.
Can I turn off Parental Controls?
Yes. Parental controls can be turned off from within the app the same way in which they were turned on. Children’s profiles in FreeTime may also be updated as they grow and parents choose to allow them more freedom while using Alexa.
Are there privacy concerns with Alexa?
Unfortunately, the answer is yes. This era of artificial intelligence is still quite new and moves much faster than legislation and policy do. Amazon believes that it has adequate controls in place to protect children, but hasn’t been 100% forth-coming about the data being collected. Parents should consider the pros and cons of using any smart speaker if concerned with privacy.
Can Alexa Be Hacked?
Alexa can be hacked, but a former NSA expert believes the chances of it are extremely low for the average person like you and me. It would be far too much time and effort for hackers to listen and sort through recordings for information or data they can actually make money off of. There are more lucrative targets available.