AI for kids: How to explain it to young kids, preteens and teens

By: Dr. Elizabeth Milovidov

Get some tips for explaining artificial intelligence to your kids—even if you don’t know what you’re talking about. An internet safety expert shares her top talking points.

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Father And Son Discussing Ai | GenAi

Many adults can’t explain artificial intelligence (AI) to each other, let alone to their kids. And while schools look for guidance and policymakers try to keep AI for kids inclusive and available to every child, Gen Zers are quickly becoming the superusers. They’re using it for homework and in Snapchat. They’re also more likely to have a career that involves AI. That means conversations about AI—including what it is—should be happening at home. A lot.

You can start right now. Whether you’re new to AI or you’re already using it on the job, here are some age-appropriate ways to explain AI to children, preteens and teens.

The difference between AI and GenAI

Artificial intelligence can take large amounts of data, analyze it, find patterns and make predictions based on that data. A smart speaker is a great example of AI: It provides answers based on what it’s been programmed to say in response to your questions. GenAI, however, can make new data from the data it’s been given:  It can “generate” new data in the form of words, images and even video. In its simplest terms: AI can analyze data but GenAI can create new data (outputs) based on the data it’s been given.

It’s important to talk about the difference between these technologies, and learn to spot the difference. (Don’t worry if you can’t. We’re all still learning).

Young children: Share what AI is … and isn’t

If your children are old enough to read and use a search engine, around the age of 5 or 6, they’re having real-life experience with AI that you can talk about. For example, they’re using AI technology when they do a voice search or ask a smart speaker for something.

When you talk to young children about GenAI, however, it can help to keep it simple. For example:

“GenAI lets you use a computer to create all sorts of things, like words, pictures, cartoons, or even movies, without needing to tell the computer exactly what it should create.

“And if you use a computer to draw a picture of a puppy, GenAI could help you draw a really good picture. With GenAI, you can ask the computer to create a picture of a purple puppy wearing clown shoes that can fly in the air with its big ears. And just like magic, the computer can create that cool picture.

“The hard part with GenAI? Sometimes GenAI gives answers that are make-believe, just like bedtime stories. So you need to be able to tell what’s real and what’s make-believe.

“It’s hard to know the difference—GenAI can even trick adults sometimes. But you can always come and talk to me and we can figure it out together. We can be GenAI detectives on the trail to discover the truth.”

Parent tip: Find a digital safety community online or create your own. Talk with other parents and caregivers about different tech trends, including developments in AI. There are parent communities on social media that provide engaging content on trends, such as the one I started, The Digital Parenting Community and Family Tech, which is managed by another writer for this web site.

Preteens: Dig into what’s possible

Nine- to 12-year-olds are already using GenAI in apps, games and interactive toys. Using terms that your preteen understands, you can explain that GenAI and AI for kids is like the magical Book of Admittance in the Harry Potter series, or the self-writing book in the movie “The NeverEnding Story.”

When you talk to preteens about AI, you can dive deeper into some of the possible concerns. For example:

“Those magical books could write anything they wanted, although you might have to give them a hint or ask a question. Now imagine if those books could draw anything you told them to or make any kind of music you wanted to hear.

“That’s how GenAI can work—as a magical book buddy creating drawings you suggest or answering questions for you. But magical book buddies could play tricks on you, so we need to talk about what’s magic and what’s real.”

Parent tip: Learn the basics of AI. Actively seek out information about AI to reduce any anxiety or fear about using this new technology. Use GenAI yourself or ask a colleague to show you some tips and tricks. You’ll also be able to apply your own experiences and observations when you talk to your kids.

Teens: Guide them to responsible behavior

Most teens have definitely heard of AI, whether it’s ChatGPT or My AI on Snapchat. What they might not know is that, like anything they put online, anything or any prompt they put into a public AI chatbot can be screenshot, shared and read by a human.

AI-based profiling, which predicts what someone might want based on what they look for online or like on social media, can also affect children and teens. This can be a tricky subject, but teens still need to understand the possible consequences of their actions in a digital environment. This report by UNICEF, “Policy guidance on AI for children," shares some of the current concerns about AI for kids, which can range from automated discrimination to a lack of data protection and privacy. It’s important that parents understand these concerns.

It’s also essential to talk about ethical ways for teens to use the technology for schoolwork and ask about their school’s policies on AI.

With teens, it’s important to ask questions to prompt conversations about AI. For example:

“Hey, I read about a lawyer who used GenAI to write her court documents. Can you imagine what the judge said to her? Let’s go online and check it out.”

Parent tip: Talk early and often about AI. I cannot stress this enough when it comes to digital safety and kids: Have open, regular conversations with your children about their online activities. And start early. If your child can understand you, then you can have a connected conversation. Speak with your children about when they see GenAI online or anywhere else, and it will help you stay actively involved in their digital lives.

What types of activities can you do in your home to teach digital literacy about GenAI and AI for kids?

Introduction to GenAI—Ask ChatGPT different questions as a family. Start with “What is ChatGPT?” and “Where do you get your answers?”

Prompt play—Ask GenAI tools to create a picture of a CEO, a lawyer, or a doctor. What do you see? Talk with your children about how GenAI answers to questions can be misleading or outright wrong.

Spotting AIDemonstrate how difficult it is to detect whether content was generated by AI by searching online for AI quizzes, such as AI or Human?

Responsible use of AI in education—Talk together about when it’s okay to use AI for homework, especially for older children. AI is great for writing essay outlines, using it to ask a question about something you’re really stuck on.

AI everyday—Point out when AI shows up in our daily activities, such as predictive speech in email or text.

AI ethics—You don’t have to use complicated language with your children to help them understand ethics. Use resources such as AI Literacy from the Family Online Safety Institute to talk with your family about ethics and technology.

Final takeaway: AI for kids is a tool that’s worth understanding

You can start the conversation with your kids at a younger age than you may think about AI, GenAI and internet technologies in general. Children need to understand that AI is a tool, and like any tool it has limitations and biases, but digital literacy will guide them on how to use AI effectively and responsibly.

Digital safety starts here. Welcome to Smart Family.

About the author:

Dr. Elizabeth Milovidov is a digital parenting author, lawyer, mom and host of The Digital Parenting Community.


The author has been compensated by Verizon for this article.

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