2 Ways Your Child Might Engage Socially With AI – Part 2

Generative AI is growing at an incredible, breakneck pace. And schools are along for the ride, trying to figure out how to harness the power of AI to benefit students. While educators and parents may worry about ways ChatGPT could allow kids to cheat, there are other, growing concerns we should address with generative AI outside the classroom: namely, how our kids interact with AI socially.

In Part 1 of this article, I discussed the growth of companionship apps in the AI industry. Creating an AI friend is a new online trend, and for some users, AI companions have provided comfort and support. But it’s a trend in which you might not want your child to partake. Beyond friendship, there’s a second way youngsters may turn to AI socially. Here’s what it is.

AI as a Therapist

While a search engine can call up a list of sources for a user to sift through, generative AI changes the game. Chatbots interact with users in a back-and-forth manner, much like talking to a human, using the sources to inform its responses. Because of this, it’s no surprise that people have turned to chatbots for mental health support. While ChatGPT will provide human-sounding responses to inquiries, there are other chatbots trained specifically to respond like a therapist. Researchers have found that therapeutic chatbots being developed have been trained to “boost well-being, using CBT, mindfulness, and behavioral reinforcement activities,” and “there can be positive mental health outcomes” from using them.

But is an AI therapist right for your child?

More kids and teens today are grappling with mental health issues like depression, anxiety, and loneliness than they did a few years ago. Because of that, there’s often a long wait if a kid needs to see a licensed therapist. But with generative AI, mental health chatbots offer therapy without a wait—and they’re available 24/7. For some, this could be the support they need while waiting to see a professional in person. And for those wishing to avoid the stigma of seeing a real therapist at all, a bot can fill that need.

A popular AI bot on Character.AI called Psychologist has been messaged millions of times since it was created less than two years ago. And it’s “by far the most popular mental health [bot], with many users sharing glowing reviews on [the] social media site Reddit,” according to the BBC. Tech writer Jessica Lucas interviewed a handful of teenage users who found the Psychologist bot “helpful, entertaining, even supportive.” Having someone to talk to and listen without judgment is one of the reasons many kids find chatbots useful.

Dr. Kelly J. Merrill Jr. who studies the mental and social health benefits of communication technologies says, “The research shows that chatbots can aid in lessening feelings of depression, anxiety, and even stress. But it’s important to note that many of these chatbots have not been around for long periods of time, and they are limited in what they can do. Right now, they still get a lot of things wrong. [People who] don’t have the AI literacy to understand the limitations of these systems will ultimately pay the price.”

Because there are many apps now available for free at a basic level that can serve as a therapist or friend, a child who’s lonely or had friendship issues might find them very appealing. But my guess is you’d rather be the one your child turns to when they’re hurting or struggling. The younger and less mature the user, the more they may think there’s a real, caring person talking to them through these apps. It’s territory you may not want your child to delve into, especially if he has more serious mental health concerns.

For some children facing challenges, these apps could help—especially if you’re in the process of seeking a human therapist but haven’t yet found the right one. But be skeptical and vigilant, and always try to be your child’s first option when he or she needs to share feelings. Ask your kids about their day, stay current on your kids’ real-life friends, and spend time with your kids every day. Knowing you’re there to listen without judgment may make your child’s decision to turn to you for support, rather than a machine, a lot easier.

Sound off: We don’t always know how kids will use AI, but we need to be prepared. What AI-related discussions have you had with your kids so far?

Huddle up with your kids and ask, “Which people in your life are the best to talk with whenever you need to vent?”