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A Generation of AI Guinea Pigs: How AI is Shaping Children's Lives

AI's growing presence in education sparks debate on its influence on the younger generation
June 17, 2024

Artificial Intelligence is rapidly becoming an integral part of children's daily routines, raising questions about its long-term impact. This spring, the Los Angeles Unified School District, the second-largest in the United States, introduced a new "educational friend" named Ed. This AI-powered learning platform, represented by a cheerful sun, is being piloted in 100 schools and is available 24/7 online, assisting students with questions about courses, grades, attendance, and even suggesting additional activities.

Children today are once again at the forefront of testing cutting-edge digital technology, reminiscent of the early days of social media. From bedtime stories generated by ChatGPT to chatbots on their favorite apps, kids are encountering AI in various forms. This technology, while innovative and sometimes inspirational, also brings its share of challenges.

Major tech companies like Google, Apple, and Meta are embedding generative AI into products such as Google Search, iOS, and Instagram. Snapchat's chatbot, My AI, built on ChatGPT, had been used by over 150 million people as of last June, highlighting AI's growing presence in platforms popular among teens. Chromebooks, widely used in schools, are also getting AI enhancements, while some creators are leveraging AI to produce content for kids on YouTube, monetizing synthetic videos.

Children, often early adopters and experimenters, are likely to explore the potential of AI more fully, for better or worse. Mizuko Ito, a veteran researcher of kids and technology at UC Irvine, notes, "Kids will be more experimental and drive a lot of the innovation in how new tech is used culturally." However, this experimental nature often causes concern among adults, who worry about reliance on these tools for schoolwork, misinformation, and privacy issues.

A significant concern is the potential misuse of AI in education. According to a poll, students using OpenAI’s ChatGPT are three times more likely to utilize it for schoolwork than search engines like Google. This raises questions about the future of traditional assignments like take-home essays. Furthermore, AI's propensity to deliver biased or incorrect information is troubling, as is its need for vast amounts of data, often obtained without consent.

AI has also introduced new forms of bullying. In one incident, five students at a Beverly Hills middle school were expelled after circulating fake nude photos of classmates created with generative AI. Although such incidents have not been reported within LAUSD, they highlight the potential for AI to be used harmfully in school environments. Efforts are being made to address these issues, with major AI companies committing to standards to prevent sexual harms against children and responsibly sourcing training materials.

The impact of AI on children varies with age and individual experiences. A recent survey by Common Sense captured mixed feelings from teens and young adults (ages 14 to 22) about generative AI. About 40% believe AI will bring both positive and negative changes in the next decade. Optimists see AI as a tool to enhance work, school, and creativity, while pessimists worry about job displacement, copyright issues, misinformation, and AI's potential to "take over the world."

As AI continues to integrate into everyday life, children are both its earliest testers and most affected users. Their experiences will shape how this technology evolves and is regulated. The journey ahead involves navigating both the promising opportunities and the significant challenges that AI presents in their lives.

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