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Most Teens Think AI Won’t Hurt Their Mental Health. Teachers Disagree

High school theater teacher Lisa Dyer has noticed in recent years that her students are more reluctant to take risks or make what she calls “big choices” on stage.

As artificial intelligence expands over the next decade—going beyond algorithms suggesting everything from what TV show to watch to what word to type next in a text—she fears her students will be even more hesitant to follow their own instincts.

“The idea of perfection is very pervasive,” Dyer, who teaches at J.R. Tucker High School near Richmond, Va., said of how her students often think in an age increasingly dominated by AI. To her students, the essays spit out in seconds by generative AI tools like ChatGPT “seem like perfection. If the computer makes it up, that must be the right answer.”

She worries that her students’ creativity and self-confidence could be stifled, ultimately hindering their mental well-being.

On the other hand, Nicolas Gertler, 19, the AI and education adviser at Encode Justice, a nonprofit organization that works to promote a values-centered approach to AI, sees the potential for AI to do everything from make school more accessible to students with special learning needs to helping diagnose and treat diseases—which could be beneficial to everyone’s mental health.

And the college freshman wouldn’t mind if robots spared him from his least favorite tasks—especially doing laundry—leaving time for more fulfilling and creative pursuits, or just relaxation.

Teens have a sunnier view of AI than educators

Which vision is closer to what will actually happen? Not even top engineers can say for certain what AI will be capable of in 10 years—much less how it will impact teenagers’ mental health and well-being.

But one thing is clear: High school students and educators have very different perspectives on what AI will mean for young people’s mental health over the next decade, according to a pair of recent EdWeek Research Center surveys.

Educators generally have a dark view. More than two-thirds of teachers and school and district leaders—69 percent—expect that AI will have a negative impact on teens’ mental health over the next decade. Nearly a quarter—24 percent—believe it will be “very negative.” Just 14 percent anticipate a positive impact, including only 1 percent who think it will be “very positive,” according to the survey of 595 educators conducted from Dec. 21, 2023 to Jan. 2, 2024.

Teens themselves are much more optimistic. Just a quarter who participated in a recent EdWeek Research Center survey expect AI will have a negative impact on their mental health over the next 10 years. A slightly higher percentage—30 percent—expect it will actually have a positive effect, including 10 percent who imagine it will be “very positive.” The survey of 1,056 teenagers was conducted Feb. 9 through March 4.

Those findings are in keeping with how different generations have reacted to the introduction of new technologies—from television to the internet to smartphones, said Lee Rainie, a scholar-in-residence and director of the Imagining the Digital Future Center at Elon University, who has spent decades studying the impact of technology on society.

“Young people throughout history are more interested in new technologies than older folks are,” he said. “Younger folks are just sort of more inclined to be early adopters, they’re more inclined to be enthusiastic, they’re more inclined to think that older ways of doing things have been upgraded by new technologies.”

‘For them, this is just the natural progression’

Today’s teens, in particular, likely have a bright perspective on AI’s impact on mental health given that “young people have never lived a life that didn’t involve some form of AI,” said Carly Ghantous, a humanities instructor at Davidson Academy Online, a private virtual school. “They’ve always had Siri and Alexa in their houses. They’ve always had turn-by-turn navigation [GPS] on their phones—that early AI that we don’t even think of as AI anymore. I’m sure, for them, this is just the natural progression.”

Ava Havidic, a senior at Millennium 6-12 Collegiate Academy in Tamarac, Fla., had a similar take.

“I think Generation Z and just youth in general, we are so used to just hearing about the next big like technological advancement,” said Havidic, who is a student facilitator for the National Association of Secondary School Principals’ Student Leadership Network on Mental Health. “It just becomes our day-to-day life.”

And while adults try to crack down on cheating with AI, some teenagers see outsourcing their schoolwork to AI as a way to relieve anxiety, said Makena, a high school student in Kansas who preferred to go by her first name so that she could speak candidly about the issue.

“Students at my school are completing assignments through AI. I think, honestly, it helps their mental health because they’re not as stressed,” said Makena, who added that she has never tried to pass off the work of generative AI as her own.

Enlisting armies of trolling bots

But educators who think AI will have a negative impact on teens’ mental health over the next decade point to deepfakes—AI-manipulated video, audio, or photos created using someone’s voice or likeness without their permission—as Exhibit A in their argument.

Already, students have gotten in trouble for making and sharing deepfake pornographic images of their classmates, including male students at a high school in New Jersey who manipulated images of female classmates last fall. And, more recently, four students were expelled from a Beverly Hills, Calif., middle school for creating and distributing deepfake photos of other students.

AI also has great potential to supercharge cyberbullying, said Jeremy Sell, a high school English teacher in California. “Cyberbullying, and all of the things that go with that, AI is going to make it worse and harder,” he said.

As generative AI develops over the next decade, creating those types of deepfakes is bound to get easier—making them even more ubiquitous, Sell added.

What’s more, AI could exacerbate “general troll behavior, mocking people, attacking them, just making their lives miserable,” Rainie said. “Not only will active human trolls go after people, but they’ll enlist their bot armies to the cause.” That could look like bots attacking a particular user every time they sign on to a social platform, for example.

Unable to ‘trust their own eyes’

The ability to use AI to fabricate information has implications beyond just cyberbullying, said Kaywin Cottle, who teaches an AI course at Burley Junior High in Burley, Idaho. Once her students realize how easily images can be manipulated, it’s harder for them to take anything they see on the internet at face value.

“They know they can build something fake that looks real. They’re not going to even be able to trust their own eyes, what they see, what they hear, or what they read,” which could be very unsettling, Cottle said.

AI’s further development may exacerbate another problem: Students’ inability to resist social media—or screens in general.

Some of Sell’s students seem to spend their lives glued to their devices because social media algorithms on sites like TikTok—which are powered by AI—are so effective, he said.

Over time, he expects those algorithms will only get smarter, more powerful—and all the more addictive, making the virtual world more tempting, and the non-virtual one harder to navigate.

Over the next decade, too, bots may become more humanlike, leading to a landscape like the one depicted in the 2013 movie “Her”, in which a lonely man falls in love with an AI-powered operating system.

Rainie predicts teens “might get sucked into a world where their relationships with their bots and the relationship with synthetic environments are going to be more enriching, more appealing, more immersive than the real-world relationships they have, which are messy and boring, and complicated.”

What the ‘modern moment is all about’

On the other hand, in anticipating AI will have a negative impact on teen mental health, educators may be projecting their own fears about its disruptive potential on their jobs, Ghantous suggested.

“Our education system was created to make factory workers,” Ghantous said. “And AI is like, ‘we don’t need factory workers anymore.’”

Teachers and their students may have to work through that kind of anxiety together—along with the rest of society, Rainie said.

“Now that we’ve got an upgrade in our intelligence and our smartness through this tool, how do we take advantage of that without becoming slaves to it, basically?” he said. “That’s what the modern moment is all about. It’s, how do we get the good and diminish the bad that might come out of this?”

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