Children effortlessly let go of the bossy communication style they use when talking to Siri when they start talking to people.

Most kids love it: virtual assistants like Siri and Alexa. Not only can they fire countless (strange and inappropriate) questions at it, but they can also endlessly command them: “Call daddy!” “Play K3!” And Siri and Alexa are always listening. For parents, it can be very entertaining to witness their children commanding the virtual assistants. But you can also feel a sense of restlessness. Because are we not creating – unintentionally – very bossy children who will soon start treating their peers and others with whom they communicate in the same bossy and rude way?

No worries

A new study suggests we don’t need to worry about that. Experiments have shown that children understand very well that different manners are permitted in a conversation with a virtual assistant than in a conversation with their parents or strangers.


The researchers collected 22 American families. They participated in a five-part experiment. For the first experiment, the children were divided into two groups. One group talked to a drawn robot that they could also see on a screen. The other group talked to a drawn cactus, which also appeared on a screen. At the beginning of the conversation, both the robot and the cactus informed the children that they could suddenly slow down. And when that happened, the kids had to say “bungo”; this reminded the robot and cactus that they should have a smoother conversation. The children quickly picked up on this: 64 percent of the children immediately said ‘bungo’ as soon as the talking robot or cactus slowed down. Those who didn’t right away were again reminded to say so. And by the end of the session, all the kids were used to it.

Second part

Time for the second part of the investigation. The first experiment was repeated, except that the children who had spoken to the robot before were now shown the cactus. And vice versa. Again, the cactus and robot slowed down at certain points in the conversation. Although the children were not reminded to say “bungo” this time, 77 percent of the children did. And then the robot and cactus did indeed start to converse more smoothly.


Now that the children were used to using the word “bungo” in conversations with the robot and cactus, the researchers were curious to see if they carried that habit into conversation with people. They put the children in a room with their father or mother. The father or mother had been instructed to start a conversation with the child and, somewhere in the middle, suddenly to speak much more slowly. A large proportion of the children (about 68 percent) also used the word ‘bungo’ in conversation with the parents, but in a very different tone and way. Playful or as a species inside joke about their parents behaving like robots. In addition, some children questioned their parents or asked them somewhat frustrated why they behaved like robots.


After this experiment, the researchers also sat down with the children for a while. They talked to the children and then slowed down halfway through the conversation. In these conversations, only 18 percent of the children used the word “bungo.” And where they sometimes interrupted their parents, they did not do that with the researchers. Nor did they make any comments about the researchers’ sudden slowdown in speech and in fact behaving like robots, although they did occasionally cast revealing glances in the direction of the parents.


According to researcher Alexis Hiniker, the experiments show that children are aware of the context in which conversations take place. “They saw the second conversation with the robot or cactus as a situation where it was appropriate to use the word ‘bungo’. With the parents, they saw it more as a way to work or play on the bond. And with the researcher – a stranger – they played it safe by embracing the more traditional conversational norm of not interrupting someone who is speaking to you.”


After all the experiments – which took place in a lab – the researchers were also very curious how things would continue at home. Did children continue to use ‘bungo’? The researchers decided to put it to the test and asked the parents to speak noticeably slower every now and then during the next 24 hours at home. Of the 20 parents who did this, 11 indicated that the children used the word ‘bungo’. But again in a pleasant and non-bossy way. “Children are very aware that robots are not humans and they want to keep those two groups clearly separated from each other,” Hiniker said. “So for the kids who took this interaction home anyway, it actually became something completely new. They didn’t treat their parents like a robot, they played with them, it became a way to connect with someone they love.”

To learn

And the latter is actually quite interesting. Because it suggests that after contact with a robot, children try something new in the conversations with their parents. It points out that virtual assistants can also be used to teach children new conversational skills that they can apply in conversations with their parents. “There are so many conversational strategies that can help children learn and grow and lead to the development of strong relationships, such as naming feelings,” Hiniker notes.

But perhaps the most important conclusion that can be drawn from this small-scale study is that Siri and Alexa do not saddle our children with a communication style that they use all the time. “After this study, I am more confident that children can distinguish well between devices and people.”