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Does Social Media AI Know Your Teens Better Than You Do?

Parents, I hate to tell you this. But in some ways, social media AI might know your kids better than you do.

Estimated reading time: 8 minutes

Your teens needn’t chat with ChatGPT or Bard or any of the other ever-growing legion of chatbots. Artificial Intelligence is everywhere. And its presence is especially potent on social media.

That presence isn’t altogether bad. In fact, you could argue (and I’m sure social media kingpins would) that AI is social media’s best friend.

New AI tools allow users the ability to create original content, from simple posts to elaborate works of art. Artificial intelligence can comb through untold reams of data as it looks for inappropriate pictures to block and spam to filter. It curates social media feeds for its users, doing its very best to give you content you want to see. 

But all those positives come with dispiriting negatives—and the power of AI has created plenty of unique problems, too. Knowledge is power, said philosopher Francis Bacon. Power corrupts, said politician Lord Acton. And when AI knows so much about our teens—perhaps more than the living, loving people around them—that can be corruptive indeed.

Everything, Everywhere All the Time

Perhaps you’re skeptical. “No one knows my kids better than I do,” you might say. “AI wasn’t holding their wailing little bodies at 3 a.m. or changing their diapers. AI wasn’t suffering through elementary orchestra concerts that sounded like a bunch of cats stuffed in a blender.”

All that’s true.

AI’s power has its limits, and you and your children share a wealth of memories, lessons, and love. But as kids grow older—as they transition into their teen years—they tend to spend less and less time with their parents and more and more with their screens.

The average teen spends about 4.8 hours a day on social media, according to a 2023 study by Gallup. That’s more time than most teens will spend doing their homework or working a part-time job. And it’s far more time than most teens spend talking with their parents daily.

Meanwhile, during those 4.8 hours, teens are telling social media—and the AI embedded in that social media—pretty much everything about them.

If 14-year-old Amber spends a lot of time watching dieting videos, the AI algorhithim will populate her feed with what it sees as like-minded vids. When she clicks on an advertisement for, say, a Cancun vacation, the AI will send plenty of other beachy options. If it asks a social media chatbot about the difference between diameter and circumference, the chatbot will dutifully answer—but perhaps remember, “Ah, Amber is taking geometry.”

Every swipe and every click that Amber makes says something about her, and AI’s sophisticated algorithms can create a surprisingly—and disturbingly—accurate portrait of who she is, what she likes and how she spends her time.

And if Amber posts a picture?

Well, AI knows just what Amber looks like, too. And if directed, it can scan the internet for pictures of her.

Think of AI a bit like a rather creepy Santa Claus. Because teens are on social media so much, it knows when they are sleeping. Because social media is often the first thing teens check in the morning, it knows when they’re awake. And given that many teens post their hopes and dreams, relationship statuses and embarrassing party pictures on social media, it knows when they’ve been bad or good. It might even know that Amber’s 17-year-old brother snuck out for a party last night … while his parents have no clue.

It’s Making a List

Social media AI can come with other problems, too.

In 2016, Twitter unveiled an AI chatbot it called Tay. It was supposed to learn from its users—and sure enough, it did. But it learned all the wrong things. After just a few hours of being fed hate-filled, racist rhetoric from its users, it turned into a vulgar, pro-Hitler bot that wanted certain people to “burn in h—.”

It highlights a big issue with AI: As marvelous as the technology might be, it’s still dependent on human input to “learn.” As we all know, we humans are pretty flawed—filled with our own weaknesses and biases and sin. All those weaknesses and biases filter into AI programs, either fed by its designers or magnified by its users. Every week, it seems, we see a story that alleges AI of gender and racial bias.

And, of course, AI—lacking a conscience—can aid and abet our own weaknesses and biases, too.

Let’s go back to 14-year-old Amber and her penchant for watching dieting vids. The AI knows that she’s interested in them, so it gives her more and more of them. Some might advocate starvation diets or unhealthy eating habits. Some might celebrate eating disorders such as bulimia. And if Amber shows interest in those dangerous vids, an unchecked AI algorithm would give her more of them—and perhaps ever more extreme forms of them.

Forget Santa: AI could be your teen’s worst friend—blithely encouraging his or her worst impulses and most self-destructive urges.

So what’s a parent to do?

AI is here to stay, and its presence and influence in our lives will likely only grow. It’s a powerful and useful tool, and social media executives aren’t likely to scrap the technology anytime soon. Your teen probably won’t give TikTok and Instagram the boot, either.

But moms and dads can help teens navigate the world of AI-enhanced social media. And they can teach them how to use such sites carefully and wisely. Here are a few quick tips:

1. Manage screen time.

Sure, it’d be hard for most parents to surpass the 4.8 hours that most teens spend on social media. But you know what they can do? Cut that 4.8 hours down to a far more reasonable number. Restricting the time your teens spent with social media can lead to a host of physical and mental health benefits—and can lesson the impact of AI on them.

Come up with some no-nonsense rules to curb screen time at home. Institute screen-free times. Create screen-free spaces: The kitchen—where so many impromptu face-to-face conversations happen—is a perfect place to begin. If at all possible, try to even keep your teen’s room a phone-free space. Some of the most ill-advised site visits, posts and conversations can be done after a teen supposedly goes to bed. If the phone isn’t on her nightstand at 2 a.m., that temptation to check her social accounts is removed.

2. Institute some social media guidelines (for you and your teen).

We all enjoy posting photos and videos of ourselves, our family and our friends on social media. It’s how many of us share memories and experiences. But posting photos publicly has always come with risk. And with AI identification software growing ever-more powerful, the risks are growing, too.

Think about some common-sense guidelines on when, or even if, you post photos online—not just for your teen, but you, too. Be aware that people can use photos to ferret out tons of information about you and your teen. And that information could be used to get closer to him or her. And here’s another truly tragic upshot: AI deepfake technology allows users to take an altogether innocent picture or video of your child and use it to create scandalous or even pornographic materials. (The good news? AI can help detect and combat deepfakes, too.)

3. Talk to your teens.

I want to take this in two different directions. First, it’s important to sit down with your kids and discuss with them the importance of being careful about what they post on social media. Remind them to think before they post; ponder about how it could be misused. Remind them that AI is paying attention to every link they click and every post they like—using that information to, essentially, define who they are.

But does that AI dossier on them truly reflect who they are—or who they want to be? Remind them of Colossians 3:17: “And whatever you do, in word or deed, do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him.”

But second … just talk to your teens. Talk with them about what they see on social media, and what might shock or bother them there. Start the conversation about their days. Ask about their hopes and fears. Invite them to share their insecurities, their anxieties—even the things they worry might disappoint or anger you.

And when they share those things, don’t freak out. Sure, some corrective action might be warranted. But react in such a way that your teens will continue to talk. Keep those lines of communication open—even when it’s hard.

Maybe AI knows your teen, at least on some level. It knows who he’s hanging out with. It knows who just broke her heart.

But you can fix that. And no matter how good AI gets, it’ll never, ever replace Mom and Dad.

It can’t bake cookies for him after a bad day. AI can’t swap stories over a cup of hot chocolate. Social media can’t offer a hug. It can’t remind him that he’s beloved by you—warts and all. It can’t encourage him to do better. And more than likely, AI won’t point your teen to God and His word—the living font we all should live by and so often forget.

AI might know more about your teen—and about us—than we’re comfortable with. But it can’t know us. Not like God does. Not like family can. When it comes to knowing who we are underneath the clicks and likes—it takes a level of intimacy AI will never master.

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