What does it mean when children say that technology is “creepy?" Researchers point out that when it comes to technology, unpredictability and ambiguous threats are main concerns for children.

‘Creepy’ Technology

Children today have immense access to technology, so it is only natural for parents to be concerned about how this might affect their children. However, it is not entirely clear what the children themselves tend to be concerned about when it comes to the technology they use.

The problem is that when children describe their concerns, they cannot always articulate them properly. Specifically, over the years, children have described some technologies as “creepy” but cannot fully explain why.

To understand children better, researchers designed a session wherein children were asked to describe real or imagined technologies as “creepy,” “not creepy,” or “I don’t know,” and to prototype their own technologies. Generally, researchers found that the children consistently described the technologies that may cause harm or disrupt a relationship, such as with their parents, to be “creepy.”

For instance, the children described a prototype stuffed toy that could record children’s action and voice to give parents recommendations regarding exercise habits as creepy.

Children’s Concerns About Technology

The researchers were able to pinpoint five main concerns that lead to the children’s fears. One is “deception versus transparency,” wherein children want to know exactly what type of information the gadget is collecting. Furthermore, vague answers that sound deceptive tend to scare children. For instance, when a child asked a voice assistant if it would kill him in his sleep, the voice assistant said “I cannot answer that,” causing the child to feel concerned.

An ominous physical appearance as well as a lack of control are also causes of concern for children. Children are generally wary of what technology looks like even if it does not look traditionally scary. Such is the case of an app with a large black dot which children described as looking like a “black spirit” or a “black hole.” In terms of lack of control, simply put, the children want to have a sense of control over the information collected by the technology, as well as the information flow to their parents.

A technology that is unpredictable or that mimics also worries children. When it suddenly does something that it isn’t supposed to, such as laugh, it translates to children as something malicious. Further, technology that mimics or copies, perhaps them or people they love, worry children that they might be stealing their identities or disrupting relationships.

Fear Of Technology

According to researchers, they are aware that the information they gathered might be used to create technology that lulls children into false sense of security. However, they note that it is also important for parents to know the types of fears that may arise in their children as a result of technology use.

As such, they can talk to their children about it, especially since they also observed that the adults around the children tend to influence whether or not they will fear a particular type of technology.

“Children have access to so many different kinds of technologies compared to when we were growing up. But their basic fears haven’t changed at all. Kids want to feel physically safe and anchored to trusted adults who are going to protect them,” said study coauthor Alexis Hiniker.

The study was presented at the ACM CHI conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems.

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