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‘My kid’s best friend is a chatbot’

Alexiei Dingli says resisting the new AI reality is futile and provides tips for parents and educators on how they can guide children to use this technology responsibly
Photo: Shutterstock.com

The proliferation of advanced AI technology has resulted in the emergence of a new companion for many children: the chatbot.

A tool that is not only capable of helping children locate the correct answer but practically doing their homework for them! It can provide quick and accurate answers to their questions.

For example, if a child is struggling with a math problem, they can ask ChatGPT (or similar technologies) for the solution and receive a step-by-step explanation. The program can handle diverse tasks by identifying relevant sources for the child and even composing the final answer. Essentially, ChatGPT can serve as a helpful tool for children as they work to complete their work.

Initially, people were sceptical. But this technological marvel has grown in popularity and has become a constant presence in many children’s lives, leading to millions of daily users. As a result, parents and educators grapple with both the excitement and concerns associated with this development.

On the one hand, ChatGPT has the potential to enhance language development and expand children’s knowledge base. On the other hand, there are valid concerns regarding the potential risks of children accepting AI-generated responses as accurate or exposing them to inappropriate, misleading information.

Even though we do not possess the crystal ball to look into the future, one thing is for sure. Such tools are here to stay, and ChatGPT is just the first of many. In the coming months, expect to see GPT4 by OpenAI, Bard by Google and Claude by Anthropic, to name a few.

So resisting these technologies is futile, and the only way forward is to foster their responsible use. But to achieve that, it is crucial to cultivate children’s critical thinking and fact-checking abilities. By teaching them to question the information they encounter online and seek out credible sources, we equip them with valuable skills for the digital age.

What can parents do?

As parents, we can use our unique relationship with our children to shape their relationship with technology, particularly with these advanced AI models like ChatGPT. To help our children engage with this technology responsibly and safely, we must actively guide their use through monitoring and setting clear boundaries.

For example, by setting limits on screen time, we can ensure that our children are not spending excessive time interacting with the chatbot, which can negatively affect their overall well-being.

Let’s not forget that even though companies go to great lengths to filter inappropriate content, they can never guarantee that the system is 100 per cent safe.

Undoubtedly, parents can keep an eye on their children’s interactions to ensure they learn appropriate information safely. However, it is a fact that parents can’t monitor every aspect of their children’s lives. So the best approach is to use this opportunity to teach our children the importance of balancing technology use with other activities, such as reading, physical exercise and spending time with friends or family.

In addition to setting boundaries, it is crucial to help our children understand the difference between AI-generated responses and expert advice. To do this, we can use creative methods, such as role-playing scenarios where we ask ChatGPT a question and then fact-check it with specialist advice to highlight the difference between the two.

We can also explain that while ChatGPT may be able to provide answers to many questions, it is not a substitute for human expertise and judgement since there may be biases or inaccuracies in its responses. For example, when asked about the Qatari World Cup, ChatGPT not only has no idea that it ever happened but might be tempted to invent an answer.

Promoting media literacy and digital citizenship skills is essential in today’s increasingly digital world

Finally, promoting media literacy and digital citizenship skills is essential in today’s increasingly digital world. It involves teaching our children how to evaluate the information they encounter online, understand the sources of information and be responsible in their use of technology.

To bring these skills to life in a fun and engaging way, we can play games where we challenge our children to spot fake news and seek clues which help us identify manipulative traces.

Remember that whereas with Google, our children get a set of documents to look into, with ChatGPT, they receive just an answer. We have no context or source. Access to information has become much easier and more direct than ever before, so our responsibility to filter it before consuming it also increased.

By taking these simple steps, we can empower our children to engage with technology safely and to make informed, responsible choices about the information they encounter, thus helping them navigate this rapidly changing technological landscape with confidence and creativity.

Discussing AI in a fun way in class

Educators, too, need to understand the significance of incorporating discussions about AI into the curriculum. By doing so, students can learn about this technology’s potential benefits and risks in a safe and controlled environment. They can easily do that in a fun way.

  • Role-playing is a great way to get students to think critically about the pros and cons of chatbots like ChatGPT. By acting out different scenarios involving chatbots, students can explore the benefits and drawbacks of relying on these technologies. For example, they can ponder on using a chatbot to schedule a doctor’s appointment and then examine the advantages (e.g. convenience, accuracy) and disadvantages (e.g. lack of personal interaction) of this approach.
  • Inviting students to conduct interviews with chatbots where they can ask ChatGPT or similar chatbots about their capabilities, limitations, and any potential ethical considerations. It will help students notice their inner workings and understand the implications of using these technologies.
  • Debating is a powerful tool for exploring complex issues, and the pros and cons of chatbots are no exception. Students can develop critical thinking skills and deepen their understanding of this technology by researching and presenting arguments for or against using chatbots in various industries and applications. For example, students could explore and present diverse viewpoints about using chatbots in the home, education or healthcare.
  • Playing games such as tic-tac-toe against ChatGPT is a fun and interactive way for students to learn about them. This game will allow students to experience the chatbot’s capabilities and limitations firsthand while providing a taste of real-world usage.
  • Encouraging students to create artwork or animations that depict chatbots and their role in society is a great way to get them thinking creatively about this technology. This activity can lead to discussions about the impact of chatbots on jobs, the economy, and society at large. Students can develop a deeper understanding of chatbots and their place in the world using their imagination.
  • By creating scenarios of what the world might look like if chatbots became even more prevalent and advanced, students can start to consider the long-term implications of such a technology. This activity will encourage them to think critically about the future and how chatbots might shape it. For instance, chatbots are gradually becoming the primary source of information, replacing search engines for the first time in decades.

While ChatGPT and other AI language models are exciting and groundbreaking, they are far from perfect and carry potential risks. However, by fostering critical thinking, monitoring usage, promoting media literacy and digital citizenship, parents and educators can help children reap the benefits of this technology while avoiding the dangers.

It is essential to remember that technology is a tool, not a replacement for human judgement or expertise. So if we want our children to thrive, we must equip them with the necessary digital skills since that is the only way to help them conquer this rapidly changing world.

Alexiei Dingli is a professor of artificial intelligence within the Faculty of ICT at the University of Malta.

Read more Child articles here.

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