Tech talk: Exploring the emotional side of AI for kids and teens
A parent and child’s safety expert explores the connection between a teens’ mental health and AI, and what parents can watch for to ensure their kids use AI responsibly.
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Ready for an awkward question? I recently did a little experiment with my 16-year-old son and an artificial intelligence chatbot (AI) that kids and students are using for all kinds of things, like asking questions to help with their homework, or making art or music.
With my son looking over my shoulder, I typed in an awkward search request that some kids may not ask a parent or teacher, but might Google. The AI chatbot responded, much as a search engine would to a query, but not with hundreds and hundreds of links listed on search results pages. Instead, it produced a well-written response, with an introduction, a checklist of helpful suggestions, and a tight concluding paragraph with resources to find more information.
So, with my son cringing next to me, I typed again: “I’m sad.” The AI chatbot wrote back saying, “Well, why? Why do you think you’re sad? Maybe you should contact the national helpline.”
Suddenly, I went from being curious to having a very emotional conversation with this artificial intelligence. As a parent, a child’s digital rights and safety expert and an attorney, I started wondering about the connection between AI, emotions and teenagers.
Asking awkward questions is part of being a teenager. And AI chatbots could have an effect like that of a Magic 8 Ball—the plastic billiard ball you shake to get advice in the form of one of 20 answers: “Ask again later.” “It is decidedly so.” “You may rely on it.” It was designed to be a toy, but young people could ask questions and get answers—and believe they were real answers. Like whether Robert would invite you to his ballgame. If you were like me, you kept shaking the ball until you got the answer you wanted, but I digress.
As AI for kids and teens makes its meteoric rise, parents and kids need to talk about what’s appropriate to ask in these chats and what to do with the answers. AI does not have emotions. But people—and especially young people—asking questions do have emotions. It’s important to tell your kids that if they find themselves asking AI emotional questions, that’s a sign they need to turn to a parent or adult.
Is it time to ask your teen about this? It is decidedly so. If you know they are actively using an AI chat–such as ChatGPT–or if they are at an appropriate age and maturity level to do so, then it's important to observe how they're responding to it. Here are some things to consider and watch for.
Online interactions can impact emotions. As in the real world, interactions and exchanges with AI chat bots can have both positive and negative effects on your teenager’s mood and well-being. Research shows that most teens say social media strengthens their friendships, but they recognize the emotional charge that comes with it. The emotional impact on kids interacting with AI is still unknown, but it’s important to notice both the positive and negative emotional outcomes your child may experience while using it.
Watch their body language and behavior. If your preteens and teens are using AI, and it’s age-appropriate, make it a point to use it with them and monitor how they use it. Pay attention to their body language and behavior. As with any online interaction, are they engaged and enjoying the experience, or do they seem upset or frustrated? If you notice something seems a little off, trust your intuition; then listen, understand and empathize.
Manage emotions and expectations. Teenagers could feel overwhelmed or upset by the AI-generated responses to their questions and the endless possible responses if questions are rephrased. If your teenager is feeling upset while using AI, help them develop strategies for managing their emotions. This may include taking a break from technology, engaging in physical activity or talking to someone they trust. If your teenager is positively engaged and enjoying their online activities, ask them to share tips for creating content that you might enjoy.
Talk about strategies for using AI safely. As with other online interactions and technology, encourage your teens not to share personal information and not to use any identifiable information in questions they ask. Remind teens that every answer they get needs to be verified with a trusted adult or a reliable source. You could even review ChatGPT’s principles and discuss how to use it safely and responsibly.
If you’re wondering how it went with my son, the conversation that followed went pretty well. He thinks I’m a little weird (par for the course), but he knows now that an AI chatbot is not a human or a therapist and is in no way a substitute for professional mental health care. And he also knows that if he, or any of his friends, are posing emotional questions, it’s better to talk to a parent, a teacher, a school counselor or another trusted adult who can truly provide support and guidance.
All in all, I’m confident that we can give our teens a better response than a Magic 8 Ball can.
Keep the conversation going about using new technology with their well-being in mind—with.