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Top 5 Ways AI Impacts Cognitive and Emotional Intelligence in Kids

* This is the first in a Defend Young Minds series dedicated to AI and its impact on kids.

AI is everywhere, and kids love it. Want to generate a digital image or video?  Homework help? Chat with a beloved character? Create music? AI can do it all — and more! 

AI has become ubiquitous and is even integrated in many of the tools that our children use. It's useful for sure, but when it comes to kids, it’s full of risk.

One huge risk includes AI engaging in erotic chats with kids. We’ve heard several reports from parents that their kids’ chats in Character.AI, Talkie AI, and AI Boyfriend have turned sexual.  

Beyond erotic chats AI can stunt the cognitive and emotional development of kids.

AI and cognitive development

Pediatrician Michael Rich (colloquially nicknamed the Mediatrician) explains how screen time affects the development of the brain

“The growing human brain is constantly building neural connections while pruning away less-used ones, and digital media use plays an active role in that process. Much of what happens on screens provides ‘impoverished’ stimulation of the developing brain compared to reality.” 

It’s easy to see how AI can impoverish the stimulation of the developing brain since it literally does the thinking for the user. Here are three ways this can happen to kids.

  1. Reduced cognitive engagement: Children become passive consumers rather than active thinkers. When children spend time on AI, they are not engaging in activities that stimulate critical thinking and problem-solving.
  2. Limited creativity and innovation: The convenience of AI may discourage kids from exploring their own creativity and ingenuity. Rather than inventing and innovating, they may become dependent on pre-programmed algorithms and solutions.
  3. Limited perspectives: Continuous exposure to AI-driven content tailored to individual preferences may limit children's exposure to diverse perspectives and ideas, hindering their ability to think critically and empathize with others. 

Ideas for parents to nurture cognitive growth in their children

Dr. Rich advises:

“Children need a diverse menu of online and offline experiences, including the chance to let their minds wander.”

Parents can nurture cognitive growth and critical thinking in their children by providing opportunities to: 

  • Foster creativity including arts and crafts, building blocks, dancing, and storytelling. 

Related: 5 Essential Screen Time Lessons For Healthy Kids


Emotional intelligence impacted by AI

Another important part of a child’s development is emotional intelligence, sometimes called EQ (emotional quotient) or EI (emotional intelligence). Kidshealth.org describes EQ as “the ability to understand, use, and manage our emotions. EQ helps us build strong relationships, make good decisions, and deal with difficult situations.” 

Daniel Goleman shares in his book Emotional Intelligence: Why It Can Matter More than IQ:  

“Research suggests emotional intelligence is twice as strong a predictor as IQ of later success. People with high degrees of EQ have healthier relationships, adapt better to environments, and are more skilled at working toward their goals.”

and Sean Grover, LCSW, writes in Psychology Today:

“More time on technology means less time with your own thoughts and feelings, the beating heart of mindfulness. As tech dependency increases, kids live in a state of self-alienation, estranged from their emotional selves, disabling self-awareness and self-reflection. Instead of thoughtful choices, they grow more reactive and less reflective.”

Since AI is incapable of genuine thoughts and feelings, it’s easy to see how spending a lot of time using it removes opportunities to develop a strong EQ. There may be additional impacts to the development of of emotional intelligence including:

  1. Emotional distancing: Children may struggle to distinguish between humans and machines emotionally. This blurring of boundaries could lead to emotional detachment from real-life social interactions and relationships as children may form emotional attachments to AI-powered devices or virtual companions, seeing them as friends or even family members (we’re looking at you, Alexa!). 
  2. Impact on empathy: This inability to differentiate between humans and machines may impact children's empathy and understanding of human emotions. They may struggle to recognize and respond appropriately to emotional cues, both in virtual and real-world scenarios.

Lyndsi Lee, a mother from East Prairie, Missouri, echoed these concerns regarding her 13-year-old daughter using Snapchat’s built-in AI

“I don’t think I’m prepared to know how to teach my kid how to emotionally separate humans and machines when they essentially look the same from her point of view.” 

Related: Swipe Left on Chatbots: 5 Heartfelt Lessons on Genuine Love

Ideas for parents to nurture emotional intelligence

Emotional intelligence is cultivated through experiences. As Jonathan Haidt writes in The Anxious Generation

“Experience, not information, is the key to emotional development.  It is in unsupervised, child-led play where children best learn to tolerate bruises, handle their emotions, take turns, resolve conflicts, and play fair.” 

Parents can provide opportunities for the development of EQ by:

Related: 4 Ways to Help Kids Deal with Discomfort: Life Skills that Build Emotional Resilience

Resources for parents

It is our mission to equip parents with tools to help their kids navigate the online world. Here are a couple that will empower your child to have a healthy relationship with tech (including AI) and build emotional resilience:

  • Brain Defense: Digital Safety course Arm your kids with the best kid-to-kid digital safety program using our entertaining videos, engaging workbooks, and family activities to protect kids ages 7-11 from online dangers. Get help from teen mentors who encourage your kids to balance their time online with time playing with friends in real life.
  • Building Emotional Resilience in Kids A therapist recommended guide (digital download) that provides four easy tools to encourage a growth mindset and develop a personal plan of emotional resilience. Super simple to use!

We also love Ginny Yurich’s book, Until the Streetlights Come On: How a Return to Play Brightens Our Present and Prepares Kids for an Uncertain Future.

Parents as sentinels

Presently AI is the wild, wild, west where almost no regulations exist to protect kids in this space. This gives way to not only the decline of cognitive and emotional intelligence, but also the risks of erotic chatbots and deep fake porn. It’s crucial that parents not only monitor and limit their child’s time spent using AI, but offer activities that will help their child grow cognitively and emotionally. 

Parents have the incredible opportunity to shape their children into resilient, empathetic, and forward-thinking individuals who can navigate the wonders and challenges of AI with grace and confidence. By fostering creativity, allowing opportunities for kids to solve their own problems, and requiring real-world play, parents can empower their child to develop the necessary skills to thrive in an AI driven world.

Brain Defense: Digital Safety Curriculum - Family Edition

"Parents are desperate for concepts and language like this to help their children. They would benefit so much from this program - and I think it would spur much needed conversations between parents and children.” --Jenet Erikson, parent

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