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Amazon Echo Just Became Great for Kids (and Unbearable to Adults)

September 4, 2017, 10:31 PM UTC

Anyone with both an Amazon Echo and a child knows the Alexa voice assistant can be at the same time a wonderful and terrible thing. On one hand, the smart speaker can answer just about any question a curious mind can lob its way. On the other, it can also help determine how many times an adult can listen to Frozen’s “Do You Want to Build a Snowman?” before losing his or her mind. (My limit: four.) Now Sesame Street, Nickelodeon, and Amazon have released skills targeted at younger users, and it’s an improvement—for little ones, at least.

The Sesame Street skill gives children the ability to “call” Elmo (faux phone ring, and all) to either play an audio game of hide and seek with the little red giggler or talk with him about their favorite letter of the alphabet. It’s a clever use of Amazon’s voice platform, but it gets old (for me at least) fast. Still, by training toddlers to talk to computers, Sesame Street’s skill is a wickedly clever way for the companies to onboard the next generation of voice computer users, and to infuse them with all the Amazon brand loyalty that it can.

Nickelodeon’s Spongebob Challenge skill ups the ante a bit, requiring little listeners to pay closer attention and enunciate better than with the Sesame Street skill. In the game, the player is an employee of the Krusty Krab, who has to listen to food orders from the show’s various characters and then repeat them back from memory to the speaker’s microphone. In an age of attention-zapping apps, Nickelodeon’s screen-free game is a welcome change, and it might even do kids—and adults—some good to play.

Lastly, Amazon’s new skill is called Storytime, and is a short story audiobook initiative for kids that links to Amazon Rapids, the company’s subscription program for young readers. Free to use, it will read off a five-minute story when invoked. The quality of the stories is great, but without a screen, they are a little difficult to follow. I imagine this skill works much better on Echo Show, Amazon’s screen-equipped smart speaker.

Targeting younger users is a smart but risky move for Amazon. These apps will help bring kids who have grown up in smart homes into the technological fold. But in collecting their data, Amazon (AMZN) and the skills’ developers expose themselves to some potentially dangerous risks. Recently, when 42 different Disney (DIS) games and apps were accused of violating the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act, or COPPA, the company was sued for allegedly violating children’s privacy. Under COPPA, online companies are not allowed to collect children’s data without their parent’s consent.

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Amazon’s new kid-oriented skills require parents to provide that consent in order to activate the apps on their Echo devices. But in doing so, it also raises the question of other skills previously installed on Echos—even Amazon’s default skills. If my son asks my connected Spotify account to play the Frozen soundtrack (again), is the stored recording of his voice request a violation of COPPA? Honestly, after listening to “Let It Go” something like 400 times, I sort of hope so—even though I’ve given him my consent to play it, anyway.