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UW answers: What tech freaks your kids out?

Toys and tech used to be quite simple. Teddy Ruxpin would play cassette tapes. Tomagotchi would ask you to feed it until your teacher banned them all from the classroom.

Those were the days, when you didn’t worry about Teddy secretly listening in on your conversations, or that Tomagotchi would also film you in the privacy of your home.

“(Tech) is changing the everyday household … in terms of the pervasiveness of it,” University of Washington researcher Jason Yip told the Candy, Mike, and Todd Show. “We started in the ’90s … going online and we had to worry about the stranger-danger. Now, all of a sudden, things that are happening are multiplying slowly. One day it’s an AI assistant. The next day our TVs are connected to Netflix. One day soon, autonomous cars are going to come into play.”

“These are conversations that I think families are going to have to have with their children, given that it’s growing,” he said.

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Today’s world of tech presents a certain level of concern about privacy and more for adults. But what about kids? That’s what researchers at the University of Washington attempted to find out. In a first-of-its-kind study, researchers endeavored to define exactly what kids mean when they say tech is “creepy.” In short, the study found the creepy line for kids is when tech is “unpredictable or poses an ambiguous threat that might cause physical harm or threaten an important relationship.”

“When it came to privacy in this study, our kids were like ‘It’s OK that my mom and dad know what I’m doing online. That’s their job. Good parents know what I’m doing,’” said Jason Yip, an author on the study.

“The thing we were really surprised about is how the kids in our study talked about relationships in their families,” he said. “There was some concern with some of our kids that this thing, technology, could interfere with ‘my relationship with my parents.’ Children have fears about being taken away from families. It’s a pretty universal fear. What’s interesting is that they were talking about the home technologies as that possible signal, giving off that fear.”

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Researchers took a small group of kids and gauged their thoughts on a few factors: deception/ transparency; ominous physical appearance; lack of control; unpredictability; and mimicry.

“In our study we saw that parents were influential in whether children thought the interaction was creepy or not,” Yip said. “Some kids say ‘No, it’s not. My parents use a smartphone all the time, it can’t be creepy because my parents use it.’ Or, ‘It has some creepiness because they put a little camera cover on my laptop. Why are they doing that?’”

Tech tip for parents

One tip that Yip gives for parents is to inspect every toy and electronic device that comes into their home. Know if devices have a Wi-Fi connection and security around that. Also know if they have cameras or mics built into them.

Perhaps more importantly, make sure children see you inspecting it, putting tape over computer cameras, checking for microphones, pressing mute buttons, and so on. That hopefully will instill the same sense of caution and appropriate fear of tech.

“The big take away for families is to start having these conversations,” Yip said. “…You don’t have to ask your kids about whether Alexa is creepy nor not. They might have a hard time explaining it. But you can ask questions for your home digital assistant. Is it OK for it to laugh like a human? Is it OK for it to listen in at times when it shouldn’t? So we can break it up … into more chewable conversations.”

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