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Parents of children called Alexa challenge Amazon

By Tim Johns

The Jeremy Vine Show

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image captionThe word Alexa is used in many households to wake up their Amazon devices

Parents of children called Alexa say their daughters are being bullied because it is the same name that Amazon uses for its virtual assistant.

Some have even changed their child’s name because they say the barrage of Alexa jokes is “relentless”.

They are calling on Amazon to change the default wake word for its devices to a non-human name.

Amazon says it is “saddened” by these accounts, and that alternative wake words are available.

The word Alexa has become increasingly ubiquitous in recent years as more households use voice-activated smart speakers. Amazon’s Echo and Echo Dot use Alexa as the command you say before giving it instructions or asking a question.

However, this is causing problems for people named Alexa, who are frequently on the receiving end of repeated jokes, where people shout their name and issue a command.

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image captionAmazon’s smart speakers have sold in their millions

Heather’s (not her real name) teenage daughter Alexa received abuse from other children, and even teachers, because of her name, as soon as she started secondary school.

“She started to not want to introduce herself because of the jokes and the backlash. She was and still is a child, yet adults thought it was OK to make a joke of her. It’s devastating. The school was unhelpful and told her she needed to build resilience.”

Alexa is human

Heather says it took a huge toll on her daughter’s mental health. Ultimately they decided to legally change Alexa’s name.

“She’s in a much better place now. We have cut off friends and moved her to a new school to allow a fresh start. The injustice will never leave her, or us. Amazon must change the default wake work on its devices. There was clearly not enough ethical research into using Alexa.”

There are more than 4,000 people called Alexa aged under 25 in the UK, and some of their parents have told the BBC similar stories to Heather’s.

Charlotte (again, not her real name) says her daughter Alexa is only six, but is already being picked on.

“It started in Reception. Older children would say things like ‘Alexa, play disco’. Other boys picked up on it and shouted commands at her.

“We were at the park the other day and every single boy there was saying it to her constantly. She’s started clamming up. I think it’s affecting her confidence. Adults make fun of her too.

“She said to me ‘I wish people didn’t know my name’. People buying these devices are unwittingly adding to the problem.”

Charlotte added that Amazon “does not advertise the fact” that the wake word can be changed.

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image captionMany become familiar with Alexa from a young age

In response, Amazon said in a statement: “We designed our voice assistant to reflect qualities we value in people – being smart, considerate, empathetic, and inclusive.

“We’re saddened by the experiences you’ve shared, and want to be very clear: bullying of any kind is unacceptable, and we condemn it in the strongest possible terms.”

‘Fight for your name’

The problem, which has attracted complaints since Alexa’s launch in 2014, is not confined to the UK.

Lauren Johnson, from Massachusetts, USA, has started a campaign called Alexa is a Human.

She said: “My daughter Alexa is nine now. The whole thing is a step beyond ‘normal’ teasing and bullying. It’s identity erasure. The word Alexa has become synonymous with servant or slave. It gives people a licence to treat people with the name Alexa in a subservient manner.”

Lauren added that for older children, a lot of the Alexa jokes can be sexual in nature.

The issue also affects adults. Alexa lives in Hamburg, Germany, and suffers jokes both in her private and professional lives.

“If I do a presentation at work, as soon as I say my name someone always makes a comment,” she told the BBC.

“I think it’s ethically unacceptable that a brand can hijack a human name and totally change its meaning. My name is my identity.

“I would encourage everyone who is called Alexa to fight for their name. It is Amazon who has to step back.”

Since Amazon’s Alexa devices were introduced in the UK in 2016, the popularity of the name has dramatically fallen. Then it was the 167th most popular baby name in England and Wales, but by 2019 it was 920th.

Amazon says: “As an alternative to Alexa, we also offer several other wake words customers can choose from, including Echo, Computer, and Amazon. We value feedback from customers, and as with everything we do, we will continue to look for ways to offer them more choice in this area.”

Alexa is not the only voice assistant to have a name also used by real people.

Siri, the name of Apple’s voice assistant, is short for Sigrid and is used in Norway, Sweden and the Faroe Islands. However, its pronunciation in Norwegian is closer to “see-ree”, combined with a rolling “r” which may mitigate the risk of confusion.

One adult called Siri, resident in the UK, has previously told the BBC that she received quite a lot of jokes from people about her name, including one from an Apple helpdesk employee.

Hear more on the Alexa story on Radio 2’s Jeremy Vine show from 13:00 BST on 2 July, or afterwards on BBC Sounds.

Advice from NSPCC if you’re being bullied

  • Go to a trusted adult, like a teacher or parent, whether you’re being bullied online or in person
  • Don’t take on bullies alone or retaliate, it might get you into trouble
  • Avoid situations of conflict by staying with friends and not travelling alone
  • Report people who are abusing you on social media and take time away if it’s affecting you
  • Look after your mental health – go outside, read a book, listen to music or meet up with a friend

More advice can be found here.

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