New Report: Youth Voices on Generative AI

This is a window of opportunity. Let's not miss it.

Sometimes it’s hard to observe transformative changes in real-time. We tend to look back and think, “Ah, that was when everything started to change.” 

When I set up my first “Friendster” account, it certainly felt new and exciting. I thought carefully about which songs and photos best represented “me” for my little corner of the internet to see. I was barely dipping my toe into what is now taken-for-granted: the ability to share photos, videos, messages, and comments quickly through an array of social networks and beyond. As I chose music to autoplay on my first profile, I never anticipated how social networking would quickly transform everything from politics to news to learning. I didn’t foresee how it would shift our sense of ourselves and each other. 

Teens sitting in a circle using generative AI on their cell phones.

The Digital World Is Changing Again

There is wall-to-wall news coverage about artificial intelligence (AI) right now. We are entering another time of profound transformation. But teens are still just dipping their toes into generative AI when it comes to regular use. Only about 4% of teens say they are daily users. This doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t be paying attention. These numbers are likely to change quickly. It is already as easy to interact with a chatbot within Snapchat as it is to connect with a friend. With Apple’s recent announcement that it will integrate AI into the iPhone this coming fall, many of us are that much closer to AI immersion.

That’s why the latest research report from Common Sense Media with Hopelab and the Center for Digital Thriving at the Harvard Graduate School of Education is so important. The report, Youth and Young Adults Perspectives on Generative AI: Patterns of Use, Excitements, and Concerns, paints a powerful picture of how young people think about and interact with generative AI technologies. 

In many ways, this report confirms what we know in our bones. There are exciting new opportunities and overwhelming new risks. I recently spoke with Dr. Emily Weinstein, co-founder of the Center for Digital Thriving. She noted that this is the time to engage deeply with adolescents related to their AI experiences. We don’t want to wait until features, business models, and habits become baked into these models and tools. We have the opportunity to observe and shape this transformation in real-time. 

Highlights from the report include:

Not all young people use AI (yet)

The AI transformation is far from over. Half of survey respondents have used generative AI tools at some point in their lives. Yet one in ten young people don’t have access to the technologies yet and about one third have access but don’t think that AI would be helpful for them. Again, only 4% of youth are active daily users.

Young people turn to generative AI for information, creativity, and brainstorming.

They are already dabbling in AI to seek information, get help with school work, brainstorm ideas, and generate images and other creative content. Black and Latinx teens are more likely to use AI for these purposes than white teens.

Young people are aware that AI might help and hurt.

Much like their opinions about social media, teens say that AI is likely to have both positive and negative impacts on their lives. Young people are excited about the ways that AI might make learning and work faster and more accessible, solve world problems, and enhance creativity and collaboration. They are worried about loss of jobs, AI takeover, privacy and misinformation. They also warn parents that AI can be used for bullying and impersonation. LGBTQ+ teens are more likely than their straight-identifying peers to say that the impact of generative AI will be mostly negative.

Some young people are bringing vulnerable questions to generative AI

Teens have long turned to the internet to ask questions that are awkward or hard to discuss with adults. One white, non-binary teen noted, “It helps me ask questions without feeling any pressure.” Teens reported that they could see using AI advice about dating, friendships, sex, and more. 

Some young people are turning to AI for support and friendship

We know that many young people are struggling with loneliness right now and are seeking belonging and understanding. Some teens noted that AI companions offer unconditional support and judgment-free comfort. One young person admitted, “That robot makes me feel important.”

“Support Us”

While we are quick to assume that teens will resist adult involvement in their digital lives, this isn’t always the case. Young people in this report were clear that adults play an important role here. One white teen boy observed, “Adults need to research more about these new concepts and talk to their kids about it.”

Supporting young people involves more than just saying “yes” or “no” to using tools like ChatGPT or warning young people about the perils of using AI to cheat. This moment is so much bigger than that. It demands that we stay curious, ask questions, and really listen to young people’s experiences and insights at the front end of these changes to the digital landscape. 

When a teenager says, “That robot makes me feel important,” we should pause long enough to consider the personal and collective questions this statement evokes.

  • It invites important design questions. For example, is generative AI built to handle vulnerable adolescent questions and respond to their social needs prioritizing health, safety, and care? 
  • It invites questions about resource flows and feedback loops. Are the business models aligned with young people’s developmental needs? If the models are at odds with developmental needs, what alternative models can we build now?
  • It invites questions about humanity. If a robot helps a young person feel important, can’t we do the same?

This is a window of opportunity to listen, get curious, and get involved. It is not a time to wait and wish it had all gone differently. What would it look like to build digital tools with adolescent development and wellbeing in mind? Let’s find out.