Amazon's Echo ecosystem is a pretty nifty thing to have around the house. From today's weather, sunrise/sunset info, and Amazon Music, it's a tool that both adults and kids use daily.
One skill in particular that we've grown attached to is Sleep Jar. For the uninitiated, Sleep Jar is a set of audio loops designed to help you fall and stay asleep. They range from ocean waves to a ticking clock (that would drive me nuts) to a box fan, and so much more. Our favorite is called "rain sounds," which provides a soothing backdrop of a rain shower droning outside. It just puts you right to sleep.
All of that is great, but for one fatal flaw--using it with the Amazon Kids parental controls.
In our day and age of ever-increasing technological connectivity, it's vitally important that our children have a balanced diet when it comes to their use of technology. It's everywhere they look in the form of TVs, game systems, smartphones, tablets, and even fitness devices! In our home, we do our best to expose our children to technology in a limited manner, ensuring that they're not overdosing on screen time. When the kids reach their teen years, we don't want them to be internet/gaming/social media-addicted monsters, but rather to be well on their way to becoming stable, beneficial contributors to society at large, as God allows.
One way we do that is by leveraging Amazon's Kids+ services to set limits on when and how various Amazon devices (like Fire tablets and Echo smart speakers) can be used. Amazon's tooling in this area is better than some, but ultimately leaves a lot to be desired. Companies honestly don't put nearly enough investment into ensuring children can safely use their devices with appropriate, granular limits.
In the case of the Amazon Echo and its assistant, Alexa, the Amazon Kids parental control dashboard allows setting time-based limits on when it can be used. Recently, we set the "bedtime" hours on the Fire tablets to span from 8:30 PM to 8:00 AM. When we later went to ask Alexa to "play rain sounds" in time for bed, we were met with the response "Sorry, I can't play right now. Ask again later."
At first, I didn't make the connection to the parental controls we'd set for the tablets. I tried rebooting the Echo, using my phone's Alexa app to turn off "do not disturb" mode, and so on, but to no avail. Once I finally recalled that we'd recently set up bedtime hours, I hopped into the parent dashboard for Amazon Kids and adjusted the time window accordingly. Within a minute or so, Alexa was back to responding normally.
The lack of granularity on these parental controls is incredibly disappointing. It's perfectly reasonable to expect that certain Alexa skills should be available even after the bedtime period begins. Things like setting alarms, playing sleep sounds, or even playing music for a bit could all be legitimate uses of the Echo "post-bedtime."
Amazon should allow parents to further customize what's available outside of "normal usage" hours. Unfortunately, I haven't seen much change or innovation occurring in this space in quite a while. I'm sure there are plenty of other parents out there who feel the same way. Having excellent parental controls for this type of tech could be a great competitive differentiator. Will anyone step up to the plate?