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The impact of AI on kids

Published: November 3, 2023

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Generative AI has cemented itself as a transformative moment in digital technology. There’s much excitement about what this next big advancement in tech means for our future – but there’s also much well-deserved anxiety. This is evident in the Biden administration’s recent executive order on the safe, secure, and trustworthy use and development of article intelligence. It’s a big step in the right direction towards taking some of that anxiety seriously. But unfortunately there’s a glaring oversight in so many of the goals, proposed guidelines, and possible issues. From that executive order to the UK’s recent AI Safety Summit and discussions from governing bodies around the globe, there’s precious little mention of one of the most important segments of the population: kids. Kids are the ones who will potentially be impacted the most by AI, and they are not just mini adults!  What is the impact of AI on kids? What implications AI might have for their learning and development requires, and more than deserves, a unique set of considerations.

Potential positives of the impact of AI on kids

There is potential for generative AI  to have a positive impact on kids’ learning. The opportunity to create highly personalized learning contexts is one obvious possibility. That is, learning content could easily be adjusted to match any particular kids’ unique strengths and areas of need.

AI tools could also have a big impact on teachers, by, for example, helping ease the burden of much of the busy work. By delegating some of that more automated work that takes up so much of teachers’ precious time and energy, teachers may end up with more time for making real connections with their students.

Classroom desk and chair

There’s a possibility that AI could help expand access to high quality education for kids from a wide range of experiences and backgrounds. Similarly, it could help make content more accessible by adjusting the delivery of information to match kids’ different capabilities.

Two of my main concerns as a developmental psychologist

On the other side of the coin, there are quite a few concerns about AI in regards to kids’ safety and wellbeing. The two that are most on my mind right now are about how AI’s impact and influence around messaging and trust in sources will intersect with kids’ development.

Impact of AI on kids: Messaging

Kids learn from everything around them. As they observe and interact with the people and systems around them, they form ideas about how the world and society work. Media and technology are extremely powerful messaging systems, and have a huge influence on forming kids’ ideas and assumptions. This has always been the case. But what will happen when AI makes the source of these messages more and more ambiguous?

Because the output from AI gets formed from statistical and probability models based on the information that was fed into it, messaging from AI is uniquely positioned to mindlessly parrot the data it draws from. This means that there are implications and potential for perpetuating bias and social strata that have been skewed more or less heavily towards one dominant perspective or locus of power. In other words, AI will spit out biases that already exist – perhaps even amplify them – and will do so with no awareness or level of critical thinking.

Without serious education around critical thinking and understanding of what AI is, how it works, and where its information comes from, this is a major issue for adults. But kids – who have developing minds and are actively constructing their models of society, building self-identity, and just generally figuring things out – are in a position to be uniquely touched by such information.

Impact of AI on kids: Trust in sources

Impact of AI on kids: trust

Another issue that comes to mind is quite similar to the issue of messaging. That is, how will AI change or interfere with kids’ ability to evaluate and trust sources of information? In early cognitive and social development, there has been some investigation of what they call testimony. That is, how kids learn to trust what other people tell them, and what circumstances might make a particular person more or less trustworthy.

There are other sources of information as well, of course, such as books, television, and the internet. All of these sources have, at some point, a person or group of people behind them, constructing a message. Throughout development, kids’ understanding of this changes as well. For instance, much research points to when kids start to understand the inherently persuasive nature of commercials, which is commonly thought to be around eight years of age.

But what happens when humans are removed even further from the process of disseminating information? What changes when the information was created by gen AI vs not? What will be their guideposts for how to decide if something they see is accurate or not?

Critical thinking and digital citizenship

As the policy paper from Common Sense so astutely points out, for the most part, all the above possible benefits are currently hypotheticals. On the other hand, some of the many concerns are either supported by what we know about how kids learn and develop, or have already started to play out in real life.

This is why including kids in discussions about AI ethics, safety, and governance is so crucial. In addition to that, it’s also vital to prioritize education around what it means to be digitally savvy. There are already some great organizations doing important work on this issue. Interested in more? Have something to contribute? Want to join the cause? Contact us at The Global Digital Mindful Project to get in touch!