My 2-year-old daughter loves our Amazon Echo, especially now that she's learned to say "Alexa" consistently with recognizable diction. But I've been a little concerned what these kinds of devices will do long term, from a child development perspective.

Is it a good thing or not, for example, that today's kids will never know a world without voice-activated robots that can play basically any song ever recorded in human history on demand? I can see the advantages of course--but I'm not sure yet of the context.

Apparently, I'm the only one asking these kinds of questions, because Amazon announced last week it's introducing a new software package called FreeTime intended for parents who want more control over their kids' use of the Echo--plus a new Echo Dot Kids Edition. 

These are smart moves by the numbers, although paradoxically, as a parent myself, I'd hesitate to spend anything extra on this beyond the cost of the Echo itself, for reasons I'll explain below.

First off, the difference between the Echo Dot Kids Edition and the plain old Echo Dot that Amazon has been selling for a couple of years now: Really, it all starts with the price tag.

This new kids version, which will debut May 9 (but of course you can preorder it now; this is Amazon after all), will carry a price tag of $79.99, versus $49.99 for the regular Echo Dot. However, the hardware on the regular and kids' versions is almost identical, except that the kids version comes with a protective case and a two-year warranty. 

Beyond that, for your extra $30, Amazon will throw in a one-year subscription to its new FreeTime Unlimited Family Plan. And FreeTime is potentially the real headline here.

It's important to note that Amazon is releasing two similarly named updates at the same time: FreeTime, which as the name sounds, is free, and FreeTime Unlimited, which costs you $83 a year--although again, it's added as part of the package if you buy the Echo Dot Kids Edition.

The scaled down, free version of FreeTime will allow anyone with an Echo, Echo Dot or Echo Plus to control a lot of what your kids can do with the devices. Among the features:

  • Set time limits, restrict which skills they can access, and restrict access to things like songs with explicit lyrics;
  • Turn off voice-activated purchasing, and instruct Alexa to respond to questions with more age-appropriate answers ("more context for questions asked, instead of giving only a direct answer," as Dan Siefert at The Verge explained.)
  • Voice calibration that will assume a younger, higher-pitched voice might be addressing the Echo, and also be more attuned for mispronunciations of "Alexa."
  • A "Magic Word" feature that will provide positive feedback when kids address the Echo using "please" or other polite words and phrases.

Again, this is the free version of FreeTime, which becomes available to everyone on May 9. There paid version, which costs $2.99 per month per kid, adds access to Audible children's books, and other offerings from iHeartRadio, Disney, Nickelodeon, and National Geographic.

Basically: programming for kids. There's also a family unlimited plan--apparently that's what you'll get as an add-on for the new kids' version of the Echo Dot--and which would otherwise cost $83 per year.

It's tough to know how many Echoes Amazon has sold, some estimates suggested 22 million in 2017 alone. Separately, according to the Census Bureau, there are about 21 million U.S. households with kids between the ages of 3 and 12. So the size of the market is pretty impressive.

Having already bought an Echo however, I can't imagine purchasing a second one--let alone a more expensive kids' version--although that's likely what Amazon is hoping a lot of families will do. Perhaps I'd be a different type of customer if I had older kids, or a bigger house for that matter.

Meantime, the FreeTime package feels like the first step in answering some of the questions parents have been asking about these devices and kids. Like any potentially addictive electronic device, you'd want to have ways to limit your kids' usage. Think of it as a "screen time" issue, except without a screen.

And while I'm not sure whether I want my child to grow up feeling obligated to offer politeness and deference to machines, I do want her to interact that way with other humans. So I'm cool with the positive reinforcement for politeness.

Of course, there's also the insanely creepy notion of placing an always-on listening device in your kids' bedrooms to begin with, which this doesn't address. I'll be interested to see whether parents eventually demand some kind of update that addresses that issue, too.

Published on: Apr 29, 2018