Two kids interacting with a robotic device

Children playing with robots – what does this mean for their development?

  • Manufacturers claim robotic toys provide children with educational and social benefits
  • Some people are concerned they could have a negative effect on child development
  • Could robots endanger the development of empathy in children?

Robotic technology has progressed in leaps and bounds over the last couple of decades, gradually extending its reach across industries. Warehouses and factories were the first to be taken over by robots, followed by bars and restaurants, where they’re also becoming an increasingly common sight. Now, robots are poised to enter our homes as well. And they’re using our children to do it.

In recent years, we have witnessed an influx of social robots aimed at children, such as Jibo, Kuri, Cozmo, and M.A.X. Unlike ordinary children’s toys, these robots are equipped with AI-powered personalities that allow them to interact with children in ways that simply weren’t possible before. They can recognise their faces and voices, respond to their questions in meaningful ways, and even simulate emotion and empathy. In other words, they aren’t designed to be just another toy in your child’s collection, they’re designed to be their friend, their companion, and they’re slowly blurring the lines between machines and living beings. But is that actually a good thing? How do these artificial relationships affect children’s mental development and social behaviour?

Manufacturers claim robotic toys provide children with educational and social benefits

According to manufacturers, robotic toys provide numerous benefits for child development. In addition to being educational, they also help them develop social skills and boost their creativity. “Robots are about engaging you socially and emotionally to help you do what you want to do,” says Jibo’s creator, Cynthia Breazeal. “That makes technology accessible and fun and engaging for a much broader demographic.”

A girl wearing blue headphones playing with a robotic toy with a smartphone and tablet in front of her
According to manufacturers, robotic toys provide numerous benefits for child development

While they’re still far from capable of fully replacing human contact, robots are becoming increasingly sophisticated and human-like. This trend is likely to continue in the future and could forever change how we interact with machines. “Robots touch something deeply human within us,” adds Breazeal. “And so whether they’re helping us to become creative and innovative, or whether they’re helping us to feel more deeply connected despite distance, or whether they are our trusted sidekick who’s helping us attain our personal goals in becoming our highest and best selves, for me, robots are all about people.”

Some people are concerned they could have a negative effect on child development

However, not everyone agrees with this assessment, particularly when it concerns children. Toys like teddy bears and dolls are important for children’s mental development as so-called transitional objects that help them deal with separation anxiety and provide comfort whenever they’re feeling stressed, according to the English paediatrician and psychoanalyst Donald Winnicott.

Children often develop deep emotional connections with their toys and imbue them with certain qualities, or sometimes even invent whole personalities for them. Since they’re the active agent in these relationships, children are aware of the fact that every action that the toy ‘performs’ is entirely their own invention and that the toy isn’t actually alive. According to Deena Skolnick Weisberg, a senior fellow in the Department of Psychology at the University of Pennsylvania, children learn to distinguish between what’s real and what’s not when they are about three years old. However, a toy that moves and talks on its own and responds to its surroundings in a human-like fashion could lead to confusion in the child and make it unable to tell whether the toy is alive or not.

Could robots endanger the development of empathy in children?

Sherry Turkle, a professor of the social studies of science and technology at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, is one of the most vocal opponents of children’s robotic toys. Her main concern is that these toys could affect a child’s mental development and their ability to develop empathy. Everything robots do is just a simulation, something that’s been programmed into them. They don’t have real emotions. They can’t feel empathy. They can only feign it. But children don’t know that, and they get attached to them the same way they would to a human being. However, these relationships are extremely superficial and there’s a distinct possibility that the child will think that’s how a real relationship is supposed to work, which could affect their ability to really understand other people and connect with them.

To truly understand another human being, you need to be able to listen and put yourself in their shoes, which is something children can’t learn when interacting with a machine. “If children learn to respond to ‘as if’ empathy, we are not preparing them for the complexity, nuance, negotiations of true empathy, true listening,” says Turkle. “Aristotle, like Jibo, like Alexa, like Siri, like Cozmo, cannot be in a ‘relationship’ with your child. They are empathy machines that can only put children in a position of pretend empathy. And pretend empathy will never teach the real kind.”

The main question is whether it’s a good idea for an object to be able to simulate human presence, emotions, and empathy. Or, should we take that ability away from them? “I’m concerned that once companies understand how persuasive and engaging this technology [is], I wonder whether they might use to it to sell people things, or serve an interest other than their own,” says Kate Darling, a robotics researcher at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. “Then there’s the question of violence and empathy: when robots can really mimic a living thing, and when you strike the robot it reacts as though it’s in pain, does that desensitize you to striking a real living thing?”

Robotic toys are the product of our societal and technological trends, and they’re unlikely to go away. While they can be very useful in certain contexts, they also come with some serious ethical concerns. So, should you get one for your child? That’s up to you, but if you do, make sure to do your research beforehand and learn everything you can about the toy you’re bringing into your child’s life. Find out what the toy will be saying to them and what kind of values it will expose them to. Explain to your child that it’s just a machine and not an actual person. And, most importantly, be there for your child and let them know they can confide in you, so that they don’t feel like they have to turn to their robotic friend for comfort.

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