By: Tiffany Munzer, MD, FAAP
Artificial intelligence (AI) is rapidly changing the way we work, play and communicate. While AI has potential to help solve complex problems, you've likely also heard serious concerns about it—and especially, the ways AI might change the lives of children and teens.
With so many viewpoints out there, how can you make sense of AI and its possible impact on your family? Let's start by looking at how AI works and what issues that parents and families may need to consider as the technology evolves.
What exactly is artificial intelligence? How does AI work?
AI is modeled on the human brain—how we gather facts, descriptions, comments, images and much more and make sense of it all to complete a specific task. The difference is that AI draws the input together, sorting it and making it immediately accessible to us. However, unlike human knowledge, it doesn’t have the ability to connect new information to all of our other life experiences.
AI technology has been in development since the mid-1950s. Thanks to recent breakthroughs, though, AI-driven tools are quickly becoming part of our everyday lives. For example, when you contact customer service, AI may help answer your questions. When you explore international news, the words you hear or read may be translated into your preferred language by AI. In your doctor's office, an AI speech recognition program may help the medical team take notes and update your chart.
On a larger scale, AI is used to study traffic safety and flow, for example, and analyze health risks in large populations.
What about the AI that some kids use to do their homework?
Generative AI is technology that creates content that in the past could come only from humans. For example, instead of sitting down to draft a report, a writer might use ChatGPT to come up with relevant facts and suggested wording. An artist might create what looks like an original photo or drawing by entering a short description into an AI-driven program.
It's easy to see why some kids use AI to help them with school assignments. They can find facts and search among millions of charts and images to learn more about a subject. AI also powers grammar programs that can check their work to fix writing errors. Schools have rules about how AI can be used for homework and writing, though, so it’s important to check with teachers. Teens also need to learn to be honest about when they used AI with assignments.
AI is all around us—and all about us
Even if your kids aren't using AI for portions of their schoolwork, they (and you) are coming in contact with AI every day. Your children, and your family as a whole, have a
digital footprint. This may be made up of every online search, purchase, download or viewing and listening session you engage in. If you use an AI-driven smart speaker to answer questions about the weather, sports scores and more, you're feeding even more data into this collective footprint.
How are kids tapping into AI?
As child health experts at UNICEF have
pointed out, kids around the world use AI almost daily. Most interactive toys, games and internet platforms made for children depend on AI technology. Even though AI is advancing faster than anyone expected, most nations have not considered how AI will affect the social and emotional well-being of children.
Much more research is needed, but early studies on AI and kids point to several concerns:
- Young children may share personal information with AI platforms. Studies show that little ones often chat with
smart speakers, telling personal stories and disclosing details that grownups might consider private.
- They may assume AI platforms are a lot like people. One study found that kids between 3 and 6 years old
believed that smart speakers had thoughts, feelings and social abilities. Only a few kids assumed the speakers were actually human. This could affect how kids learn to interact with others.
- They may trust AI more than they trust humans. Another study found that young children thought smart speakers were more reliable than people when it came to answering fact-based questions such as, "Who was the first U.S. president to drive a car?"
- Many teens use AI daily. Adolescents are big fans of generative AI that helps them write essays and reports and create images and video for social sharing (among hundreds of other possible uses). However, only
1 in 4 parents whose teens use AI are aware they're doing it, a recent poll shows.
What are the benefits of AI for kids and families?
There are many ways AI technology can help kids learn and grow.
- It's a valuable tool for learning. AI can be used to tailor lessons and learning experiences to the individual needs of young children and teens. It can help educators and parents find ways to enrich learning for kids of all abilities at different stages of growth and development. And while it's not a good substitute for live conversation, it can help children improve their language skills and even learn new languages.
- It can foster creativity. We live in a visual world, so kids need ways to express their ideas through photos, images, graphs and more. AI is not only valuable to budding artists, but also kids who want to create data displays, charts, simple cartoons and other visuals.
- It may motivate and engage kids in new ways. AI can be interactive and fun for kids, offering new ways to enjoy and explore their world. For some, this may be a life-changing experience that opens new doors, enhances school performance and helps prepare them for the challenges of adult life.
What are potential dangers of AI for our kids?
For all the promise they hold, AI platforms can also harm children and families.
- They can spread hate, bias and stereotypes. Because AI "learns" from everything it finds on the internet, AI platforms reflect the same prejudices that threaten to divide and alienate us. Extensive studies show that AI-generated content advances stereotypes and falsehoods. Adults must be ready to talk with kids about what they see online and how it might reinforce negative beliefs and actions.
- They can erode privacy. AI collects a huge amount of data about us, often without us knowing it. For example, one toy was found to record conversations among parents, kids and anyone else nearby, with the ability to transmit data from these conversations to third parties. It's hard to keep up with reports on toys and devices that could violate your family's privacy, but parents may want to avoid interactive toys that promise to "talk" with kids.
- They can flood kids with
selling messages. AI follows us on the internet, making note of what we like and serving us more of the same. Your child's search history may make them the target of relentless ad campaigns you would prefer they not see.
They can be used for bullying and fraud. Generative AI can be used to create false or distorted images of your child or teen, or someone they know. One example: the
fake nudes that have been used to attack and shame many teens.
voice cloning can be used to threaten kids into taking actions they ordinarily would never consider, like giving private information or sending money. (See "What Do Teens Need to Know About Sextortion and Online Predators.")
Are lawmakers taking action to protect us?
It's clear that AI is here to stay. But in the U.S., legislation hasn't kept pace with technological growth.
- The Children's Online Privacy Protection Act (COPPA) protects kids 13 years and younger by restricting access and usage of personal information about them that can be found online. However, since its passage in the late 1990s, COPPA has been routinely violated by media companies, manufacturers and others. Further, it isn't clear whether ChatGPT and other generative platforms comply with COPPA regulations.
- The Kids Online Safety Act, first introduced in 2021 and still moving through Congress, would require social media platforms to protect the data of minor-aged children. However, this legislation doesn't address the data that web service providers, email services and educational institutions can gather about our kids.
- An executive order on AI may serve as a guideline for future laws, but regulations that spell out what organizations can and can't do with AI technology do not exist yet.
What can I do to safeguard my child from the risks of AI?
AI is a moving target, so you may find it hard to set healthy guidelines for your child or teen. Here are a few common-sense suggestions for you to consider. You can also share them with teachers, coaches, neighbors and community leaders who work with your child.
- Talk to your kids about AI. Tailor what you say to your child's age and level of understanding.
- You don't want to frighten a young child, but you can make them aware that the smart speaker in your kitchen is not the same as a trusted friend. Talk about the differences between people and digital assistants—or between live conversations with friends and family and chatting on social media. Draw examples from your own life so your child gains a sense of how you practice online safety.
- With teens, aim for an open discussion about privacy, bias, bullying and other online safety issues. Don't preach—and don't try to cover every aspect of AI all at once. Ask them for their opinions and keep an open mind. This can prompt discussions that will help you learn together.
- Teach older kids how to manage online privacy. Explain how they can manage cookies, clear browsing histories and block social media users or marketers whose messages they choose not to see. Emphasize that this is something all online users should know—and offer a few examples of how you protect your own privacy.
- Try AI together. Consider testing out an AI-driven app like ChatGPT or Facetune together with your kids. This can give you the chance to discuss how it works and point out any issues that concern you.
Common Sense Media offers
reviews that help you choose platforms to test-drive as a family.
- Encourage curiosity and critical thinking. Challenge your kids to look for signs of bias in online content. For example, you can make a game out of spotting things that seem real vs. those that appear to be fake. Ask kids where they think the information or images are coming from. Does the person, company or group sharing them have a goal in mind? What reasons do we have to trust (or distrust) the sender?
- Talk about plagiarism. In a time when anyone can cut and paste content and pass it off as their own, kids need to understand the concept of original work. Explain how they can use online information as a jumping-off point for their own thinking. Make sure they understand that copying or presenting the words, images and ideas of others without giving them credit is wrong (and often illegal). Continue the conversation as you kids grow.
The future of AI & protecting kids
We have a long way to go in realizing the benefits of AI while also protecting our kids from the risks it might pose. The guardrails we need should reflect the tremendous power of AI to shape our everyday lives.
Ongoing dialogue should bring families together with schools, health care providers, sports and arts organizations and other community organizations, so we can help kids benefit from AI while minimizing its potential harms.
About Dr. Munzer
Tiffany Munzer, MD, FAAP is a developmental-behavioral pediatrician and digital media researcher at the University of Michigan. Dr. Munzer earned her medical degree from the University of Arizona College of Medicine and completed pediatric residency and fellowship training at the University of Michigan. She is an executive committee member of the AAP Council on Media and Communications. Her most recent work has examined how the pandemic has shaped families' digital media experiences.