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How parents can help kids use AI safely

For today’s parents, the question is inevitable: How should you handle your kid’s relationship with artificial intelligence?

Tools like ChatGPT and Midjourney are only growing in popularity, and tech giants have touted the potential for AI’s advances to improve childhood education. Earlier this year, Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates predicted that by late 2024, chatbots will become “as good a tutor as any human ever could” on subjects like reading and writing.

But other experts urge caution, over the potential risks of exposing kids to unproven technology without considering how it might affect their psychological and cognitive development.

“We know that AI still has a long way to go in terms of accuracy,” says Dr. Tovah Klein, a child psychologist, author of the book “How Toddlers Thrive” and director of the Barnard College Center for Toddler Development. Barnard is an undergraduate women’s college of Columbia University.

“Certainly for younger children, for elementary age [and] preschoolers, they definitely need adult involvement navigating the digital world period, let alone a digital world which may have that much more … inaccurate information,” she adds.

Here’s why allowing your children unchecked access to AI tools is a bad idea, and what you should do instead, according to Klein.

The accuracy — or inaccuracy — of artificial intelligence

Even AI systems that have developed to the point of approaching human-level intelligence still have a tendency to produce inaccurate information.

Younger, elementary school-aged children are far more likely than adults to accept information as fact from an authority figure without questioning it, says Klein. That makes it important for children to have an adult presence helping them develop the understanding that sometimes information is accurate, and sometimes it’s not, she adds.

Even without the concern of misinformation, you should still supervise your kids’ AI sessions for a simple reason, says Klein: You understand context and nuance better than machines do. Children need to understand the individual steps of completing a math problem, rather than being content inputting an answer that’s either correct or wrong.

AI-powered tutors and learning programs could ultimately prove helpful for young children, especially those who lack access to in-person educational resources, says Klein. But she warns against allowing children to rely on them as their main tool for learning.

“If we have the science showing that that kind of learning, in addition to a teacher, is useful, then I think there is a role for AI,” she says. “I think part of the problem is, we don’t really know [yet].”

Dangers of increasing screen time

The more time kids spend with AI, the less face-time they’ll get with other humans, says Klein.

“Human interaction matters, [and] screens limit that,” she says. “Children are in a fast developmental learning phase, and their brains are moving quickly. And part of what they’re learning is the back-and-forth of nonverbal cues.”

Covid-era research shows that remote-learning wasn’t particularly effective for younger children — and, in some ways, may have been harmful to their behavioral and learning development.

“Interacting with humans is so important for children: It’s how they learn to relate and to read people and to read cues. If a teacher has a look of joy … Even if the child’s struggling, that kind of feedback is really important,” Klein says.

Advanced AI programs are getting better at imitating human speech patterns, but Klein says we’re still “a long way off” from a machine being able to properly mimic those sort of nonverbal cues that are essential to a child’s psychological and educational growth.

What should parents do?

Klein offers a few pieces of advice to parents when it comes to letting their children use AI systems as part of their education:

  • Don’t let AI tools be their only source of information. If possible, make sure a human — whether you or a teacher — can help them talk through how they arrived at an answer. Help them fully understand it, so they’re not missing out on important cognitive development.
  • Help your children understand that they are interacting with a machine, even if that system is built on language and ideas originally created by humans. Make sure they know that sometimes, the information these tools provide is incorrect.
  • Monitor how much time your kids are spending on it, just as you would with other online tools or on August 2 at 1 p.m. ET to learn from premier experts and entrepreneurs how you can beat inflation, hire top talent and get access to capital.

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