Childhood in the Age of Artificial Intelligence

The potential for artificial intelligence (AI) to benefit our kids is real. For many of us, it's already integrated into our children's daily routines.

A robot named Milo taps the power of AI to teach children with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) better social and verbal skills in 39 U.S. states. Additional new research shows how using social robots at home with ASD kids can improve gaze behaviors, such as the ability to make eye contact with others.

AI also helps educators better predict which young students might struggle with ADHD and other learning disabilities through machine learning (a type of AI). It pulls data from hundreds of schools to identify clusters of at-risk kids that did not match previous diagnostics or who had been overlooked.

But AI is not just for special educational needs. According to a 2019 study conducted by Edison Research and National Public Radio, the number of U.S. households with smart speakers surged by 78% in a single year (2017-18).

More and more kids without cognitive or emotional challenges have access to virtual assistants to learn new languages, improve manners, or even up their organizational skills. And let's not forget Apple's Siri, Amazon's Alexa, or Google's Assistant, on call to field homework questions at any time.

Parents Must Take Responsibility

AI's scope and strength must be understood, respected, and carefully managed. Psychologist Richard Freed, PhD, author of Wired Child: Reclaiming Childhood in a Digital Age, urges parents to implement strict guardrails. "Despite being told how you are the digital immigrant, and your kids, the natives, you as parents must lead," he says.

In other words, Alexa may be able to help your kid with her homework, but it can't teach her to problem-solve -- and you'd never want your kid to outright cheat by asking a smart speaker for the answers. "You may be enamored with your child's digital facility," he says, "but don't mistake it for self-control. Kids don't have the brain development to set limits for themselves."

Elizabeth Milovidov, a law professor and digital e-safety consultant with the Family Online Safety Institute, agrees. "As a child online protection expert and tech enthusiast, I walk a fine line. I believe our children can benefit from digital assistance and convenience -- while understanding the parameters of what they can and cannot do" when it comes to AI, she says.

"Digital parenting doesn't have to be perfect, but it does have to be present," she adds.


Ask the Right Questions Up Front

Milovidov advises parents to consider a series of questions before buying or downloading any type of AI-powered device or platform, be it a smart speaker like Echo Dot, a smartphone, educational toys, or gaming apps. These queries fall into one of six familiar categories: who, what, where, when, why, and how.

Sample questions include: Who can my children communicate with through this device or platform? What is the worst-case scenario if I allow my child to use it? Where can I go to learn more about safety settings? When is my child most likely to be harmed online, and when should our family be device-free? Why is it difficult to enforce time limits? How can this technology benefit my family? (For additional advice on setting guidelines, visit

AI "can bring incredible opportunities to families," Milovidov says. "But parents need to stay informed of the potential risks in order to minimize harm."

Protect Your Kid's Privacy

Privacy concerns must be considered, says Jennifer King, PhD, director of consumer privacy at the Center for Internet and Society at Stanford Law School. She's less concerned with children meeting a bogeyman online than she is with big corporations collecting a lifetime of data from your kids.

"We don't know what these corporations are doing with it," she says, citing recent news that Facebook hires overseas workers to transcribe Messenger communications to better train the platform's AI capabilities -- meaning such correspondence is anything but private.

Smart speakers exist in their own ecosystem, King says, but who, exactly, is monitoring your child's digital queries? "If a kid asks Alexa to turn the lights on and off, OK. But these devices are being used for search," she says. "People talk to their devices, assuming no one is listening: 'Alexa, find me information about sexually transmitted diseases.' So much personal disclosure is going on." It's unclear, she says, how or if search is being monetized. So be aware, and let your children know, too, that the internet can sometimes be watching them.


Connect in Real Life

In an age when even parents seem to have difficulty setting down their smart devices, it's essential to model balance to children, Freed says, especially with smart, AI-driven technology, which is "intentionally designed by psychologists and neuroscientists in Silicon Valley to be attention-grabbing, immersive, and addictive."

That means, Milovidov says, that "balance is key. As with all digital devices, make sure your child is not being overly exposed and spending all of his or her time interacting with machines instead of real-life friends and family members."

Ask the Experts

Are kid-friendly smart devices available?

King says, "Amazon has come out with a kid version of Echo Dot." The privacy settings are already built in.

How can parents set limits with teens who already use smart devices?
Parents should demonstrate screen-free behaviors they want to see in their child, Freed says. Implement digital-free zones: sporting activities, family vacations, dinnertime, or in the car.

How can I best secure my kid's digital privacy?
Make it your business to set and check privacy settings on all smart devices kids can access, Milovidov says.

Does it matter if a machine is teaching a child, versus a parent?
Kids learning how to speak French or asking for homework help using a virtual assistant is only OK if a parent is still a key part of the process, Freed says. "Just as important as what's being said is who or what is saying it."

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WebMD Magazine - Feature Reviewed by Hansa D. Bhargava, MD on September 30, 2019


SOURCES: "Say Hello to Robokind."

Science Robotics: "Improving Social Skills in Children With ASD Using a Long-term, In-home Social Robot."

Science Daily: "Scientists Use AI to Develop Better Predictions of Why Children Struggle at School."

De La Salle Lipa: "Students’ Startup Builds AI Therapy Toy for Kids with ADHD." "Empowering Students to Function Better, Inside the Classroom and Out."

National Public Media and Edison Research: "The Smart Audio Report 2019."

YouTube: "Learn a New Language With Daily Dose and Amazon Alexa."

The Washington Post: "Amazon's Alexa Will Soon Be Teaching Your Child Manners."

PC Magazine: "5 Ways to Be More Organized With the Amazon Echo."

CNET: "5 Ways Alexa Can Help Your Kids Do Their Homework."

Richard Freed, PhD, child and adolescent psychologist; author of Wired Child: Reclaiming Childhood in a Digital Age.

Elizabeth Milovidov, PhD, JD, assistant professor, American Graduate School in Paris; digital parenting consultant, Family Online Safety Institute.

Family Online Safety Institute: "Good Digital Parenting."

Jen King, PhD, director of consumer privacy, The Center of Internet and Society.

Business Insider: "Facebook Has Been Collecting Audio From Some Voice Chats on Messenger and Paying Contractors to Listen and Transcribe It."

Common Sense Media: "The Common Sense Census: Media Use by Tweens and Teens." "Smart Speaker Installed Base to Surpass 200M in 2019."

About Amazon at The Amazon Blog: "Everything Alexa Learned in 2018." "Meet Milo!"

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