IS ALEXA A BAD PARENT?

Eight-year old Susie is emailing Grandma about her birthday party and her presents from the neighborhood kids. Mom is nearby and she says, “Hey, Mommy. Could you please spell ‘neighbor’ for me?” Mom replies, “Sure, Honey, it’s n-e-i-g-h-b-o-r.” “Thank you, Mommy. I’m telling Grams about my birthday party.”

Nice, kid; even said “Please” when asking for the spelling. But let’s say Mom is in another part of the house. Susie is there in the family room, alone except for Alexa. “Ah!” Susie, thinks, “I can ask Alexa! Hey, you big zit loser, Alexa, how do you spell neighbor?” Alexa willingly accommodates: “Neighbor is spelled n-e-i-g-h-b-o-r.” “Thanks you big phony pimple face!” says Susie, laughing at her mastery of presidential language.

I recently saw an article in the newspaper bemoaning the “Alexification” of our kids. The idea is that Susie got an answer to her question, even though she posed it in a very crude, impolite way. In the language of Psychology, Alexa reinforced Susie’s nastiness, thus strengthening her tendency to be nasty when seeking information from others. Reinforce bad behavior and the bad behavior will be more likely to occur in the future. The conclusion: Alexa is a bad influence on our kids.

This issue reminds me of a similar one that was hot back in the 1960s and ‘70s: Are children likely to imitate the violence they see on TV?  This was a big debate, folks, and Congress even got involved, holding hearings to hear from experts. The lawmakers were wrestling with whether they should pass legislation monitoring and controlling the level of violence on TV.

Not surprisingly, the debate stimulated all sorts of psychological research into the question. As the results filtered in some answers began to emerge to the question, “Is violence in the media causing aggressive behavior in children?”

Now any good critical-thinking educated Psychology major will know that the answer is not likely yes/no, black/white, either/or, but something a little more nuanced. As I always used to tell my students again and again, “The answer to most psychological questions is, ‘It depends!’”

OK, in the case of imitating TV violence, depends on what? Under what conditions is TV violence likely to encourage aggressive behavior in kids? The research showed two factors definitely playing a role: The degree to which a child sees depictions of violence on TV as real life, and the degree to which a child identifies (admires, wants to be like) with a violent character (typically the “bad guy”) on TV. Makes good sense, but it begs another question: “What makes a kid more likely to see TV as real, or more likely to identify with the bad guy?”

Not surprisingly, that question appears to be answered by kids’ home lives. The research shows that kids who imitate violence on TV have parents who are mostly cold, disengaged from their kids, and rejecting. “Can’t you see I’m busy, Danny? Go watch TV or something.” It certainly makes sense that a kid who has a non-supportive, frustrating, and anxiety-laden home life filled with criticism might turn to the more reassuring world of TV, especially shows that show violence as a real way to achieve goals.

The point is, we’re not going to take a random child, place him or her in front of a TV to watch violent shows, and turn that child into an aggressive bully (or worse!). There have to be other factors in the child’s life that “fit in” with the TV violence and make the child more vulnerable to seeing an aggressive world where lashing out at others is a real way to resolve problems.

I have a feeling the issue with Alexa is the same. If a child lives in a home with warm, supportive parents who are engaged in the child’s life, and who take an active role in teaching and guiding their child, that child will easily learn that human interaction has rules of courtesy and respect that are always to be followed.

So parents, don’t fret if you catch your child telling Alexa to go to hell. Always remember that Alexa, TV, social media, or crude and profane politicians do not alone have the power to turn your sons and daughters into callous, insensitive jerks. It is only with your help that these agents of current society can produce their evil effects. You must, therefore, fight them every step of the way by guiding, mentoring, teaching, and loving your children. Help them develop a social conscience and learn to act with dignity, grace, courtesy, and respect.

 

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