By Dr. Mary Rooney, Ph.D.

In last week’s post I discussed how digital assistants, like Alexa, can help things run more smoothly at home when you have a child with ADHD. Digital assistants are developing rapidly, and already come with an impressive array of features and functions. Yet, as with all emerging technologies, parents should be on the lookout for unintended consequences that might crop up once they and their children start using the devices. With screen-free digital assistants, many of the pitfalls that come with tablet and phone-based technology are avoided. On the other hand, the language and style of speaking that we use to communicate with Alexa doesn’t match up with the way we talk with our partners, coworkers, and children. As adults, we can easily distinguish between a style of speech used with technology and a style of speech used with the people in our lives, but for young children and children of all ages who struggle with social interactions, this differentiation may not be intuitive.    

Across the board, kids attribute human thoughts, feelings, and intentions to inanimate objects. It’s completely normal for them to think that their stuffed bear may feel lonely if he is left alone all day, or that their dump truck is mad because it’s wheel got stuck in the sand. As kids get older this tendency gradually decreases, but for some, it still pops up well into adulthood (think of people you know who talk about their beloved car as though it is a person!).

Technology like Alexa taps into this tendency to attribute human qualities to objects. And, depending on your child’s developmental level, the line between person and technology may still be quite blurry. So, as you bark out commands to your digital assistant -- “Alexa, turn on the lights,” or “Alexa, play my favorite radio station,” or worse, as you keep trying to get it to work, saying more sternly each time, “Alexa. Alexa!  ALEXA!” -- your kids are hearing and absorbing your tone and phrasing. Without intending to, you’re providing a model of communication that they may generalize to their interactions with friends and family.  

Fortunately, with three simple steps (and ongoing mindfulness on your part) you can keep this behavior to a minimum:

  1. Rename Alexa. Did you know that you don’t actually need to refer to Alexa as “Alexa”? “Alexa” is simply a word programed into your digital assistant to “wake it up” and get it ready to receive a command.  It’s called the “Wake Word” and you can change it to anything that you would like to use. You can de-personalize your digital assistant and make it clear that you are taking to a machine and not a person by changing the device’s Wake Word to “Computer” or another technology-related name.
  2. Say “Please.” Start talking to your digital assistant the way you would talk to a friend or colleague when you’re asking them to do something for you. Start each request or command with “Alexa, please…” (or the new name for your device in place of “Alexa”). After the task is completed, end the conversation with “Alexa, thank you.” Your device will always respond by saying something like, “You bet!” or “Anytime!”, providing a great model for your child.
  3. Remember that you can turn off Alexa. It’s easy to forget that you are in charge of your technology, and not the other way around. If you’re concerned about how your child is interacting with Alexa, or your child isn’t practicing his or her “please and thank you” with the device, then it might be time for a break. Let your child know that when he or she doesn’t use “please” or “thank you,” the device will stop responding. Then, unplug Alexa. It’s as simple as that. After a break, plug Alexa back in and let your child give it another try.

As digital assistants continue to evolve I’m optimistic that new family-friendly features and parental controls will be added to their functionality. In the meantime, be mindful of the way you and your child interact with Alexa, and be on the lookout for unintended consequences that may pop up as you integrate this technology into your daily life.



Mary Rooney, Ph.D., is a licensed clinical psychologist in the Department of Psychiatry at the University of California San Francisco. Dr Rooney is a researcher and clinician specializing in the evaluation and treatment of ADHD and co-occurring behavioral, anxiety, and mood disorders. A strong advocate for those with attention and behavior problems, Dr. Rooney is committed to developing and providing comprehensive, cutting edge treatments tailored to meet the unique needs of each child and adolescent. Dr. Rooney's clinical interventions and research avenues emphasize working closely with parents and teachers to create supportive, structured home and school environments that enable children and adolescents to reach their full potential. In addition, Dr. Rooney serves as a consultant and ADHD expert to Huntington Learning Centers.


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This website does not provide medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. The material on this site is provided for educational purposes only.

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