Parenting in the Age of AI

Catherine Dietrich @ EPFL Extension School · 12 minutes

How to talk to children about artificial intelligence.

Our Children’s Brave New World

Today’s children are able to operate devices like iPads, smartphones, and digital assistants with complete confidence. Even three and four-year-olds can skillfully swipe their way around a device, or command Amazon’s Alexa1 to play a track from Frozen2.

The way children interact with technology in their formative years, and the guidance we give them for using it, will have a big influence on the sort of people they will grow into. It’s clear that their life experiences and opportunities will be very different from those of previous generations – and that will largely be down to technology.

Artificial intelligence (AI) will be the single most influential technology on the future of today’s children. It will have a much greater effect on them than the computer and internet revolution had on their parents. Today’s young people are growing up surrounded by complex algorithms that influence what they see, how they communicate, which videos they watch, and how they learn.

Children are at the forefront when it comes to both using AI and being used by it. And, because children are extremely malleable during their early developmental years, it makes them particularly vulnerable to AI if it is used either maliciously or irresponsibly.

AI already blends seamlessly with all of the other technologies they can see in their world: they encounter it directly on tablets3; they see their parents rely on it when mum or dad is using the sat nav or Google Maps4 in the car; and of course they talk freely to Alexa. AI operates constantly in the background of their daily lives.

It’s understandable, then, that children just accept the presence of AI as just another natural part of their world. And it’s here that the line between reality and AI becomes blurred.

Parenting Children in an AI World

Parents have always faced lots of challenges when it comes to raising their children safely and responsibly. Today, the ready availability of AI in all of our lives introduces something that will have a big influence on the development of children, and parents need to know how to manage it. We’re now faced with preparing our children for something that we did not encounter when we were their age, and that can be a daunting prospect.

In 2020, Unicefthe United Nations Children’s Fund – introduced a new set of guidelines designed to help national governments and companies develop policies that will consider children’s needs. These guidelines emphasize four key themes: privacy, safety, fairness and explainability. The aim is to protect children from potential AI-based harm while encouraging the development of AI systems that will have a positive impact on health and development.

These guidelines are in place for support, but it is up to parents to see that they are actually implemented so that children can navigate AI technologies safely as they grow and explore. If we can frame AI in a way that they can understand as children, they will be well prepared to take advantage of the opportunities that this technology will offer them as they get older.

To do this we need to find ways of having conversations about technology with our children. We need to give them context and vocabulary to enable them to understand AI, talk about it freely, and interact with it in their daily lives. Gaining knowledge of AI, and working through the implications of it, empowers children and gives them the confidence to make independent decisions concerning it as they grow.

With this understanding, children can start to work out some of the ethical concerns around AI via their own experiences. They can begin to consider issues around privacy, the monitoring of their behavior, the lack of accountability, and the potential for the development of addictive experiences. Children are more susceptible to these risks, and by giving them this knowledge we can help them to avoid potentially unhealthy habits.

Perhaps most importantly of all, this early understanding of AI can help children to realize that they will be the custodians of this technology in the future. This AI world will belong to them and it will only be as good as the humans who develop it.

But how do we begin to educate our children in this uncertain territory? Where do we start? As parents and guardians, we already struggle to set our children limits for screen time and phone usage – limits we struggle to keep to ourselves.

If we’re unable to put down today’s devices for a few hours each day, what chance do we have of resisting far more intelligent and engaging technology in the future? How do we get children to resist technology that can do their homework for them, bypass parental controls, and draw them into a world of digital escapism? The mundanity – but also the wonder – of their everyday lives risks being lost.

In terms of our children’s development, AI holds enormous promise. But it also introduces unchartered territory where we as parents must tread carefully. AI has the potential to unlock the abilities in our children like nothing else we’ve seen, but there will be challenges to overcome along the way.

Meeting AI in Our Homes and Lives

The presence of Amazon’s Alexa and Apple’s Siri in our homes are prime examples of what we call “personified technologies”. This is AI at its most accessible and children interact with it on a daily basis.

It can be enormously useful for answering questions like, “How does a fridge work?” or, “What is ‘flamingo’ in French?” It’s also useful for playing music as the family gathers before dinner, or for reading out recipes as we cook together.

However, when children can satisfy their every whim by giving a device a simple voice command, we have to consider how this will influence the way they interact not only with technology, but also with other people. As parents, we are justified in feeling anxious about the long-term influence these virtual assistants will have on our children’s behavior and development.

Will these kids get into the habit of shouting orders and receiving nothing but positive reinforcement? Will they be able to learn how to communicate in polite and considerate ways? Or will they develop antisocial characteristics instead?

Rachel Severson, a University of Montana child psychologist, has published studies on childrens’ interactions with AI and intelligent technology. She has found that children think of personified technologies as being somewhere between animate and inanimate.5

There are numerous anecdotes that young children think there’s a little person inside the device, or there’s a person on the other end of the exchange, like a telephone,” Severson said. “These illustrate that children are actively trying to figure out how to conceptualize these devices – are they alive or not alive? Is it a real person in there?

But if children really do think that Alexa is a person, shouldn’t they speak courteously to her? How do adults, under constant scrutiny from their children, set a positive example when addressing Alexa? Do we bark requests at her? Do we say please? If children aren’t quite capable of distinguishing between humanity and technology, how can we expect them to treat people with any more courtesy than they would a machine?

With this in mind, I recently asked my seven-year-old, as we listened to music in the kitchen, “What do you think Alexa is?” Without missing a beat, she responded, “She’s a robot.

Her four-year-old sister looked up sharply from her Play-Doh. “There’s a ROBOT in that tiny thing?! How did it get in there?

And thus began a conversation about how Alexa works.

Me: “It’s really a very clever voice recorder that sends what you say over the internet to a ‘giant computer’ that translates what you say and then responds with an answer.

Seven-year-old: “But how does it work so quickly?

Me (in a slight panic): “In the same way the emojis you send to Granny by text message appear on her phone all the way on the other side of the world as soon as you press ‘send’. Internet speed is much faster than human speed.

I held my breath and thought, ‘Great, I’ve used technology speak to explain technology.’ But had what I’d said made any sense to them?

Seven-year-old: “Oh. Okay.

Four-year-old: “Could you please pass the cookie cutter?

With these accepting, age-appropriate responses, the discussion was over. I breathed a sigh of relief, and we went back to baking Play-Doh cupcakes. But even then I couldn’t help but wonder if I’d explained it in the right way, or if I should have even asked them in the first place given their ages.

Studies have shown that exposing children to technical concepts stimulates their problem-solving and critical-thinking skills, and can help them to learn computational skills later in life.6 From this I infer that any conversation with children relating to technology is better than none at all.

Opening a dialogue that leads children to ask questions helps with their cognitive development, and it keeps the lines of communication open with them on the subject of technology. AI will only become more prevalent in our lives, so I doubt this will be the last conversation we have about it. We’ve made a start, and for that I’m glad.

It’s easy for adults to feel complacent or insecure when it comes to our ability to explain these concepts to our children. As AI technology becomes smarter, maybe we should leave these explanations to the machines themselves?

After the discussion with my children, another thought occurred to me: I could have just asked the device directly. If I had asked, “Alexa, how do you work?” she would have responded, “Lots of people have worked hard to teach me and I’m still learning more.

I know this because I tried it out later that day.

This is a perfectly satisfactory way of explaining machine learning in one brief, simple sentence, but it wouldn’t have worked in the context of our conversation. I may not have the same expertise or knowledge as the machine, but I was able to give a real-life example and some context to my daughters that I knew they could relate to. And that’s something machines can’t do. Yet.

Keeping an Open Dialogue

Kathy Hirsh-Pasek, president of the International Society for Infant Studies, warns that systems like Alexa aren’t sophisticated enough to understand children and should never be used as a substitute for human interaction.5

The biggest thing we have to remember with little people is we can’t let anything come in between the human conversation,” she says. “If you look at parents reading real books to kids, they break when they turn the pages and go off on side stories about how they once saw a monkey at the zoo. Research shows back and forth conversations with them is the best way they can learn.

Our explanations may not be perfect, but it’s important for us to keep giving them so that the conversation remains open between us and our children. Kids need to understand that while AI might appear to fit seamlessly into their lives, there is a very big difference between the physical world and the virtual one.

If we bear this in mind, and take some cues from the Unicef guidelines, we can find suitable ways of engaging with our children on the subject of AI.

Parental AI Toolkit7

Putting Their Security First (Safety and Privacy)

First and foremost, our children’s safety and security is of paramount importance. The advance of technology, and how our children engage with it, introduces a new set of concerns for parents. We have to be aware that there are people with sinister intentions who would misuse AI technologies to exploit others.

To give two examples, children are particularly vulnerable when it comes to toys connected to the internet, and the presence of facial recognition technology in public places. But on the other hand, the potential of AI to protect our children from crime is immense.

New advances are allowing researchers and child protection officers to identify threatening patterns of behavior in ways never previously seen. AI will have a pervasive impact on our children, whether we like it or not. It’s important to realize that this isn’t a black and white issue, and that there will be both positive and negative outcomes.

Consider the age and experience of your children when you try to explain AI in a way that will make sense to them. The key points to remember are that AI is a combination of different smart technologies (like ingredients in a cake, or Lego bricks in a building) that make up a computer program. This program can perform human tasks, such as learning and problem solving, and it gets better at those tasks over time.

Find a definition that works for you and your children, then try to make it relatable to their experiences.

Discovery Through Games and Apps (Explainability and Fairness)

Children engage and learn when they’re having fun, so look for games and activities that are related to AI. These games don’t have to actually use AI, they just need to use tools that will increase your child’s understanding of it.

There are many apps and games available online that challenge children and parents to identify areas where AI is incorporated into their lives. This can include recognizing the effects AI has on society and how people in various socio-economic environments experience it differently.

Set Limits and Keep Control (Safety)

It’s important to remember that your child’s digital interactions have to be carefully monitored. Psychologist Richard Freed, author of Wired Child: Reclaiming Childhood in a Digital Age, urges parents to implement strict guardrails.8

Despite being told how you are the digital immigrant, and your kids the natives, you as parents must lead,” he says. “You may be enamored with your child’s digital facility, but don’t mistake it for self-control. Kids don’t have the brain development to set limits for themselves.

A Bright Future With AI

One thing AI and our children have in common is that they are both in the early stages of their development. As our children grow, so too will AI’s capabilities and its overall role in our everyday lives.

For now, it’s important that children learn how to recognize when they are interacting with AI, how they can benefit from various AI technologies, and how they can be aware of potential threats.

With our help, guidance, and availability for open dialogue, our children will learn to think critically about AI and develop a language to describe it that makes them feel comfortable. With this preparation they will be able to make the most of all the opportunities AI promises to offer them in the very near future.

  1. ‘Alexa’ is the name of Amazon’s voice assistant, which allows you to control other household devices in your living room. For more on this, please see the corresponding Wikipedia article

  2. ‘Frozen’ is the name of a famous Disney movie, released in 2013. For more on this, please see the corresponding Wikipedia article

  3. A ‘tablet’, as for example sold by Apple or Samsung, describes a portable, flat computer which you can control with via touchscreen. Especially kids can use such tablets to watch movies or play games (also called Apps) from anywhere they want. 

  4. ‘nav’ is short for navigation system. Google Maps is one of the most common navigation apps people use in their car to find their way. 

  5. For more information about this, you can checkout this article 2

  6. For a nice read-up on this topic, checkout this article

  7. Based on the UNICEF guidelines

  8. Related article


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