Amazon is releasing its Echo Dot Kids Edition at a precarious time.
The backlash against social networks and big tech companies, which recently came to a head with Facebook’s Cambridge Analytica scandal, has kicked off a widespread re-evaluation of the kinds of information that we willingly, and sometimes unwittingly, surrender to various services. Europe’s General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR), which just went into effect, has reinforced this awareness.
Add to that the story about how an Amazon Echo accidentally shared the audio of a private family conversation with one of the people in the account holder’s contacts. While that was probably the Echo equivalent of a butt-dial, it does serve as a reminder about some of the more uneasy possibilities that go hand-in-hand with putting frictionless, always-listening tech in our personal spaces.
Given the current climate, it may strike some as kind of a big ask on Amazon’s part to expect customers to buy an Echo device specifically created for kids. But there’s a good counterargument, too: The proper answer to this wave isn’t to overly shield kids from technology, but to design a product that caters to the different habits they have, and do it in a way that doubles down on privacy protections.
And that’s exactly what Amazon has created in the Echo Dot Kids Edition, which my family has been using for the past couple of weeks. It provides a great gateway for younger kids to use Alexa, and, per Amazon, audio files and kids’ personal data are never sent to third parties.
But you still shouldn’t buy it. More on that in a minute.
A colorful setup
If there’s something about the Echo Dot Kids Edition that Amazon doesn’t want you to know, it’s that the device itself is exactly the same as the Echo Dot, just with FreeTime for Alexa enabled by default.
FreeTime for Alexa is basically “parental control mode” for the device, which you can activate on any Echo, Echo Dot, or Echo Plus (notably, the screen-enabled Echoes don’t have the feature). The Alexa app makes a distinction between the two products in the setup menu, but it’s really to ensure FreeTime is turned on and some appropriate skills (like some third-party games) are enabled.
With FreeTime, you create specific profiles for your kids. I have two, an eight-year-old a and five-year-old, and they have different profiles on our Kindle Fire Kids tablet. For the Echo, though, you can only have one kid logged in at a time, so you need to pick one or the other. Amazon says it doesn’t partition content by age group in FreeTime for Alexa, so I don’t know how much difference this would make anyway.
In any case, I picked my son, who’s older, and after a few taps in the Alexa app, the kids’ Dot was up and running in our house’s playroom, complete with primary-red case.
I’ve had an Echo in our kitchen since the summer of 2015 and have since hooked up a few Dots in various rooms over the past year, so my kids are very familiar with Alexa. They set timers, play songs, and ask questions (“When does Pacific Rim Uprising come out?” was a popular one with my son for a while) all the time.
And pretty much all of that is exactly the same between the regular Dot and the Kids Edition. But I wanted to get more of a sense of what this age-aware version of Alexa could do that was different, so I took one of the suggestions you get after setup and asked to play a game.
Alexa was down, quickly listing off voice-driven games appropriate for an eight-year-old. The first one mentioned was Lemonade Stand, so we went for that one. It’s very simple: With a few fake bucks to start, you make imaginary lemonade at the cost of 15 cents a glass, and promote your business by buying signs as well. The weather (and thus demand) changes every “day” in the game. Pretty simple money-management-and-profit gameplay.
And my son loved it. He really threw himself into the game over the next day and a half. When I checked in with him, he had turned the initial five bucks into almost $200. (Look out, Jeff Bezos!)
My five-year-old daughter found a game she liked, too. Panda Rescue, as she described it, let her teach pandas to prepare them for release into the wild. You can meet “friends” (non-player characters), advance levels and lose levels as you work your way up to Level 10, when presumably the pandas are ready to handle themselves in the “world.”
My kids also appreciated that Alexa on the Echo Dot Kids Edition could grok their humor better than plain Alexa. “Why was the ghost so well-liked by his classmates? He had a lot of school spirit,” might not bring down the house in a comedy club, but my son is a fan.
“Alexa finally tells good jokes,” he told me.
FreeTime for Alexa has a few other features. In response to queries, Alexa is supposed to give more educational answers, and use vocabulary that’s tailored to a younger audience.
The thing is, my kids generally don’t ask Alexa a ton of straight-up informational questions. It’s usually everyday updates like the weather or kid questions that no one would know the answer to, let alone a digital assistant (“Alexa, what’s more powerful: the Infinity stones or the Force?”). Perhaps, if the kinds of answers Alexa gives are to their liking, this kind of behavior will change over time, but it’s not a huge selling point.
Another feature that didn’t go over at all was Alexa’s “rewarding” of polite behavior. That is, if your kid says “please” and “thank you” to Alexa, it will say something like, “Thank you for asking so nicely.” I don’t disagree with the impetus behind this, but I found that it’s probably too late for my kids. After interacting with the digital assistant in a utilitarian way for three years, they’re not inclined to say “please” to Alexa.
It doesn’t even work all the time. When I tried to show them how it was done, asking Alexa to “Please tell me the weather,” there was no praise for my good manners. Oh well.
The kids Dot does lock the kids out of some key functions to make sure they stay safe. They can’t control smart home devices (although that will change at some point, Amazon says) or access news updates, and no explicit music will play. That worked fine with my kids since their favorite songs — fare like “Hand Clap” by Fitz and the Tantrums and “Fight Song” by Rachel Platten — are pretty family-friendly anyway.
But I really need to get to the reason you shouldn’t buy the Echo Dot Kids Edition, and it has nothing to do with privacy. It’s because you can get virtually all the same abilities via a regular Echo Dot, which costs just $40.
The $80 Kids Edition bundle gets you a Dot, a colorful case, a year of FreeTime Unlimited, and a two-year no-questions-asked warranty. Other than the Dot itself, you don’t need any of that stuff. The only bit that’s arguably worth the extra expense is the year of FreeTime Unlimited ($36 value), but, if you don’t have a Kindle Fire tablet to enjoy the children’s books, mostly means just some extra songs and playlists.
So if you’re looking to extend Alexa to your kids’ rooms, go ahead and just get a couple of Dots, turn on FreeTime for Alexa for them, and put that extra cash into Lego sets or something. That’ll teach them the value of a dollar better than Lemonade Stand ever could.