As parents, we want our children to become comfortable with the modern technology that will become integral elements of the world in which they will live - but, at the same time, we want to ensure that their learning does night create any privacy, financial, or health nightmares. One of the difficult challenges that we face in this regard is that none of us grew up with the technologies that our children will consider commonplace - we never learned from our parents any "best practices" for parenting in a world of AIs, virtual reality, or even smartphones.

One technology that raises serious questions for many of us modern-day parents is Alexa - the now increasingly ubiquitous AI persona of the Amazon Echo, Dot, Tap, and Fire series of devices. In a prior article entitled This One Word Creates a Huge Parenting Dilemma in the Age of Amazon's Alexa I discussed the dilemma that we face with regard to whether we should teach our children to say "Please" and "Thank You" when making requests from Alexa and upon receiving answers. As I explained in that piece, the issue is not as simple as some might think, and there is no single, simple answer.

Besides, the delicate balancing issue of politeness versus the efficiency of communications, however, there are several other important considerations for parents to think about in Alexa-enabled environments.

1. Privacy concerns: unexpected recording of private conversations

By default, Amazon stores recordings of all requests made to Alexa. While this may not be an issue in some adults-only environments in which requests are made, it creates privacy concerns in locations where children may speak with Alexa while private conversations are taking place in the background. I discussed this issue - and multiple ways to address it - in my recent article Amazon Alexa Recordings Demanded By Police In Murder Case.

2. Unintended Alexa listening and responding

If you have anyone named Alexa in your household, you obviously should change Alexa's wake word from "Alexa" to "Amazon" or something else. Consider doing the same if anyone has a similar name - various pronunciations of Alex, Alexy, Alexis, and similar names can all trigger Alexa. You don't want Alexa recording you every time you call your son or daughter.

3. Inappropriate content

Dedicated Alexa devices have no real parental controls. (The Fire devices do - for more information see here) If a child asks something about an adult topic he or she may receive an answer that parents may struggle to explain. Likewise, there seems to be no way to prevent the playing of music with explicit lyrics if such songs are requested, for example, from and within the Prime Library (a common source of music for Amazon Prime customers). As seen in this not-safe-for-work YouTube video (disclosure: whose authenticity I have not independently verified), AI responses are also not always perfect, or age appropriate. For these reasons, consider allowing your younger children to utilize Alexa only when you are present.

4. Unauthorized purchases

Alexa allows people to buy things from Amazon using voice commands - Saying "Alexa, buy laundry detergent" does exactly that. Of course, this feature could let children purchase things that you may not want them to purchase - a first grader in Texas was reported to have ordered cookies and a $170 dollhouse without her parents' permission. To prevent unauthorized voice-command-based purchases you can enable a PIN that must be provided by voice whenever making a purchase - but, remember, it is generally a terrible idea to recite PINs or other passwords orally, and, if you do state the code in front of your children, not only will you be training them to mishandle PINs, you will also likely render your PIN worthless when it comes to protecting against their making unauthorized purchases.

Published on: Feb 7, 2017
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