For $1,500, parents can soon buy another piece of technology to outsource their relationship with their children: “Moxie,” “a fun, safe and engaging animate[d] companion for children.”
Moxie is a seven-pound robot that aims to teach children “emotional social communication skills,” according to Paolo Pirjanian, founder of the startup making Moxie. The startup is funded by tech giants including Amazon, Intel, Sony, and Toyota. A year after purchasing, parents will need to keep shelling out cash for a monthly subscription to keep Moxie updated.
A video promo for Moxie clearly tries to make the robot seem sweet, helpful, and appealing, but it actually comes off as a creepy form of parent replacement. In the promo, parents try unsuccessfully to get their son to pay attention to them instead of screens they have provided him. So instead of taking away the devices and teaching better behavior, the parents purchase a pricy robot to do it for them.
Notice that the boy in the video, like plenty of kids we’ve all seen, has been already trained at his young age to give more attention to screens than to human beings. How did he get that way? From before birth, humans are biologically wired to prefer human faces and voices to other visual and auditory stimuli. Parents of the young kids glued to their iPads in restaurants have allowed their children’s natural and appropriate biological preferences for human interaction to be reprogrammed into addictions to inanimate objects.
This should horrify more of us. And the solution is not more screens, it’s more relationships.
What tech-addicted, parent-deprived children need is not a robot. They need their own moms and dads to care about them enough to learn how to personally teach their kids to do what is best for them. That’s what parenting is all about: Developing our leadership and relationship skills through trial, error, and a lot of love.
Robots might arrive pre-programmed with helpful coaxing phrases and other child development solutions that parents would otherwise have to take years to discover and practice. But this will deprive Moxie-owning kids of parents who have developed better skills they can deploy any time it’s needed, instead of the daily one-hour limit Moxie is programmed to be “awake” (in a telling attempt to head off twisted relationships with this robot like those depicted in “Black Mirror” and movies like “Her.”)
Thus, while attempting to improve social, emotional, and communication skills, ironically Moxie is more likely to attenuate them and prevent them from forming across the entire family. Even if in a limited way, Moxie will replace the parent-child relationship with a child-robot relationship. I suspect that’s not going to be good for children in the long run.
“Moxie was originally imagined for children on the autism spectrum, but it’s now being marketed to all young children through a subscription model that promises new educational content each week,” says Fast Company. That’s because we’re all a little autistic now, thanks in part to our increasingly tech-mediated and relationship-starved society.
“Socio-emotional learning” is a rising fad largely centered on the problem of trying to fill in for yet another aspect of poor and absent parenting. Teachers are increasingly noticing children unable to carry on simple conversations and lacking other basic social skills such as looking people in the eyes when they talk and controlling their emotions. Sensing big money to be made off people’s relationship failures, schools, foundations, and edtech companies are speculating in the field of “socioemotional learning” with ways to centrally control kids’ behavior and emotions rather than reinforcing families’ natural abilities to inculcate these skills themselves.
Research has found that not only are poor self-control and social skills correlated with parent absence, they are also correlated with tech addictions. Prominent iGen sociologist Jean Twenge writes that teens and tweens’ lack of ability to navigate social situations such as dating, working out problems with friends and family, and communicating with employers is linked to their high use of screens to mediate social relationships. Screens reduce people’s practice communicating, making us worse at it.
Conversely, for young children, “in-person interactions with parents are much more effective than video for learning of new verbal or nonverbal problem-solving skills,” according to the American Academy of Pediatrics.
The Academy also finds that parents’ tech addictions make them more irritable with their kids and less likely to interact with them. Perhaps more expensive tech like Moxie can help solve problems tech generally exacerbates, or perhaps it’s time to put down the screens and start talking to our kids again.