AI Innovators Should Be Listening to Kids

From Greta Thunberg’s student-led climate strikes to the youth-driven protests in Hong Kong and Chile, the next generation is increasingly demanding a voice on pressing issues. Youth movements are reenergizing paralyzed debates among adults with fresh perspectives, inconvenient questions, and the rhetorical power of having to live with the long-term fallout of our short-term thinking.

With another monumental societal transformation on the horizon—the rise of artificial intelligence—we have an opportunity to engage the power and imagination of youth to shape the world they will inherit. Many of us were caught off-guard by the unintended consequences of the first wave of digital technologies, from mass surveillance to election hacking. But the disruptive power of the internet to date only sets the stage for the even more radical changes AI will produce in the coming decades.

Instead of waiting for the youth to respond to the next crisis, we should proactively engage them as partners in shaping our AI-entangled future. Young people have a right to participate as we make critical choices that will determine what kind of technological world we leave for them and future generations. They also have unique perspectives to contribute as the first generation to grow up surrounded by AI shaping their education, health, social lives, leisure, and career prospects.

These “AI natives,” like digital natives before them, often use and relate to technology in unanticipated ways. For example, our focus groups have made it clear that, contrary to what many adults assume, young people do care about privacy and have developed creative techniques to manage their reputations online (though they are less aware about the privacy implications of the data trails they leave behind). Youth have reimagined platforms like Instagram by using multiple accounts curated in different ways to manage their digital public personae. Observing youth practices can illuminate potential unexpected uses of new technologies and offer a source of inspiration for reimagining concepts like reputation or identity.

Different generational attitudes toward and understandings of technology were on clear display last year when Mark Zuckerberg testified before Congress and an older cohort of legislators demonstrated how little they understand Facebook’s product or business model. Meanwhile, the Zuckerbergs of the next generation are already developing innovative AI-driven technologies to solve problems relevant to their lives. Teenager Emma Yang designed an app called Timeless that uses facial recognition to help people with Alzheimer’s, like her grandmother, recognize and stay connected with their loved ones.

Photograph: BEN STANSALL/Getty Images

Young people like Yang can inspire and inform us. But they also have a right to participate because they will have to live with the long-term consequences of today’s decisions. AI will transform their career prospects, for example, and 85 percent of young people are worried about how it will threaten the job market. As Turkish teenager and inclusivity advocate Ecem Yılmazhaliloğlu said at this summer’s AI for Children event, “AI is being developed by adults, but we need to make sure these adults think about what children need while developing it.”

The inclusion of young people also has important symbolic value. Greta Thunberg often asks audiences to imagine her 75th birthday in the year 2078, envisioning what she will tell her descendants about what the adults of today did to address climate change. The presence of young people like Thunberg in crucial debates puts a literal face on the future, forcing us to take the long view. It’s also essential to involve young people with a variety of perspectives, experiences, and backgrounds in order to ensure that new technologies are inclusive and their benefits widespread,

Some groups are beginning to recognize the importance of including youth in conversations about digital technology. The UN-backed Internet Governance Forum created a program to bring “youth ambassadors” to its annual summit. UNICEF and its partners have been working through their RErights and Generation AI initiatives to engage young people in defining their rights in the digital age.



Urs Gasser is the Executive Director of the Berkman Klein Center for Internet & Society at Harvard University, the Principal Investigator of the Center’s Youth and Media project, and a professor at Harvard Law School.

The center I lead at Harvard University, the Berkman Klein Center for Internet & Society, works to integrate youth voices into our research. Through our Youth and Media project, we have partnered with young people, educators, researchers, and practitioners to design more than 100 educational tools to teach and engage youth about the digital world. For example, we collaborated with teenagers from a local innovation school called NuVu Studio to develop a playlist of learning experiences on licensing, copyright, and best practices for young digital artists and creators.

We learned that by co-designing digital citizenship resources with young people, we create tools that are more relevant to the youth. The insights from our young partners are now available in more than 40 languages and used by over 350,000 youth and educators in homes, classrooms, museums, and libraries across the world.

This type of youth engagement is unfortunately rare. Current conversations about AI are often limited to a relatively small group of technical experts and decision-makers, and youth are rarely included as participants or constituents. A recent UNICEF review of 17 major frameworks for AI ethics created by intergovernmental and nonprofit organizations found that only one robustly engages with the issue of child’s rights, and ten do not address children’s issues at all.

When youth voices have been excluded from past conversations about digital technologies, resulting policies have been ineffective and incomplete. Our research found, for example, that the age restrictions and other regulations previously implemented by the U.S. Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act (COPPA) were poorly aligned with how young people and their parents actually relate to children’s privacy online. EU data protection restrictions for social media have been similarly detached from the lived reality of how youth use various platforms.

As we begin to respond to the thorny issues raised by AI, we must include youth as key stakeholders in the policymaking process, as well as our educational and research efforts. This doesn’t mean that young people have all the answers, nor should we put the burden on them to be responsible for these decisions. How we involve young people—particularly those from underrepresented communities—is an important design challenge. We can start by experimenting with some of the approaches described above, and get inspired by models like shadow youth boards, youth labs, and youth panels.

Like climate change, AI is a generation-spanning challenge that will impact everyone, everywhere. It must be confronted with intergenerational dialogue. We can’t anticipate all the issues that will arise or how to solve them, but we can lay the groundwork for effective, democratic processes and institutions to address the transformation we know is coming. Youth have the most at stake, and they also have valuable perspectives and experiences to contribute. If we want to take control of our digital future and respond effectively to the disruptions new technology inevitably brings, we must listen to their voices.

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