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AI and Teen Mental Health

Artificial Intelligence, or AI, has the potential to support teen well-being - but the negatives include tech addiction and cyberbullying with deepfakes.

AI is everywhere. It has incredible potential to evolve medical care, communication, education, and just about every other field—changing life for today’s teenagers. Yet without appropriate limitations in place, initiatives like AI in classrooms and AI therapy for teens can present dangers as well as benefits.

Some experts, including educators and clinicians, view the proliferation of technology as yet another stressor on the younger generation. But others feel it could improve teen mental healthcare and even save lives.

What Is AI?

Artificial Intelligence (AI) is essentially the use of a machine to perform cognitive functions such as reasoning, learning, seeing patterns, solving problems, and expressing creativity—skills that were once the province of human intelligence.

AI is already widespread in modern life. GPS guidance, autonomous vehicles, voice assistants like Alexa and Siri, chatbots that help people navigate websites, and generative AI tools (like Open AI’s ChatGPT) are some examples. Generative AI generates text, images, videos, or other data using generative models. And through “machine learning,” it can learn and synthesize human language, images, video, software code, and even molecular structures.

How Does AI Affect Teen Mental Health?

In terms of AI and mental health, this technology presents various threats to teens. Here are some of the issues and risks.

Cyberbullying with Deepfakes

Deepfakes are AI-manipulated video, audio, and photos created using someone’s voice or likeness without their permission. And teens in particular are impacted by deepfakes.

The New York Times recently reported on an epidemic of deepfake nudes being created and shared in middle and high schools. Teen boys use AI software to create explicit images of female classmates, using their real, identifiable faces. Then they circulate the doctored pictures via group chats, or show them to peers on the school bus or in the school cafeteria. Not only is this a legal issue, this type of cyberbullying can also harm teen girls’ mental health, reputations, and physical safety.

The more time teens spend plugged in and on social media platforms, the more cyberbullying increases. A 2020 report by the organization L1ght found a 70% uptick in hate speech among kids and teens across communication channels on social media and popular chat forums.

Addiction to Virtual Reality

Moreover, for teens, most of whom are already glued to their devices, AI could lead to screen dependence, even addiction. Critics argue that AI may make the virtual world more alluring than real life. With the sophistication of non-human worlds growing by leaps and bounds, living in a virtual fantasy world could become the norm.

Scientists have found that teen social media overuse creates a stimulation pattern similar to the pattern created by other addictive behaviors. Hence, the brain responds to social media the same way it responds to other “rewards”— with a release of dopamine. These dopamine rushes are catalyzed when a teen posts something online and is met with likes, shares, and positive comments from their peers.

According to the American Psychological Association, the teen brain is wired to be “especially invested in behaviors that will help them get personalized feedback, praise, or attention from peers … Youth are especially sensitive to both positive social feedback and rejection from others.” They’re also less capable of controlling the impulse to keep scrolling, because the areas of the teen brain that control self-regulation are still immature.

Diminished Creativity

Educators feel that AI could impair young people’s creativity and self-confidence. When they see how quickly artificial intelligence apps can create images or written text, they may become less motivated to put in time and effort to do it themselves. Moreover, students who struggle with perfectionism may feel that their painstaking creations can never measure up to what AI can do in seconds.

Lack of Meaningful Human Connection

One study warns that generative AI may shift how people interact with each other. With AI therapists and “emotional support companions” available with a single click, might young people choose AI over the complexities of real-life relationships? Could chatbots, which can simulate human conversation, become more attractive to young people than their real-life peers? Her, the 2013 movie about a lonely man who falls in love with his AI-powered operating system, is one example.


How Is AI Used in Mental Health?

One of AI’s strengths is its ability to synthesize information from an unlimited number of sources and see patterns far more quickly than humans ever could. While analyzing medical data, behavioral data, and voice recordings, AI can detect mental health issues before they progress.

For instance, some AI mental health solutions function as wearables. Using sensors, they can collect data on teens’ sleeping patterns, physical activity, and variations in heart rate and rhythm. And they can use these electronic health records to assess a teen’s mood and cognitive state. Looking at a teen’s eating habits, for example, could allow AI to flag a potential eating disorder. Armed with this information, AI can recognize issues that might have otherwise been left untreated, and point teens in the direction of mental health treatment.

In addition, chatbots can offer guided conversations that address the specific issues teens may be experiencing. As teens start typing or talking about their concerns or negative thoughts, chatbots can send caring and compassionate responses. They might also suggest breathing exercises, stress-management tips, coping skills, or ways to reframe negative thoughts. AI might even provide responses based in evidence-based mental health techniques, such as Cognitive Behavioral Therapy.

What Conditions Can AI Help?

Research conducted during the COVID-19 pandemic found that digital chatbots were associated with significant reductions in substance use occasions. One survey even found that a GPT3-enabled chatbot had prevented 30 student users (3% of the 1,006 surveyed) from attempting suicide.

Conversational agent interventions (CAIs), which mimic human conversation in a more personalized way than traditional chatbots, can help to address teens’ emotional needs. A research review found that CAIs offer short-term help in improving depressive symptoms, specific anxiety symptoms, general distress, stress, mental disorder symptoms, psychosomatic disease symptoms, and quality of life or well-being. (The long-term effects of CAIs on the above symptoms were not statistically significant).

In another study, conversational agents didn’t significantly improve overall psychological well-being. But they did significantly reduce symptoms of depression and distress.

What Are the Positives of Using AI in Teen Mental Healthcare?

Given that it can take months to find an available therapist due to waiting lists, AI therapy apps can be helpful for teens with pressing needs. Chatbots and conversational agents are available and accessible 24/7 through your smartphone. They’re also free.

For teens who feel uncomfortable showing up in a therapist’s office, AI offers anonymity. In private and without stigma, teens can access mental healthcare. For adolescents who struggle with face-to-face interaction (like some with autism spectrum disorder, for example), AI could be more useful than an IRL counseling session.

Furthermore, because AI can analyze data at lightning speed, it can provide early intervention with mental health problems or recognize crisis situations. Natural language processing algorithms can track the use of language in conversations to detect patterns that might correlate with mental issues. Teens just beginning to spiral into depression, for example, may be able to receive help more quickly—and in a more targeted way. And AI’s ability to analyze genetics, lifestyle, and treatment responses allows for more personalized treatment plans.

What Are the Downsides of Using AI in Teen Mental Healthcare?

Firstly, chatbots have not received FDA approval, and data showing that they improve mental health conditions like depression is limited. As well, the design, development, and training of AI may not allow for culturally competent care. That’s because algorithms are often trained exclusively on certain populations. Thus, they may offer unsuitable treatment recommendations and fail to detect risky behavior that looks different among people of different cultures.

One study underscores that chatbots in the mental health field should be used with caution. Researchers noted that chatbots given humanistic qualities and marketed as therapeutic agents could overpromise on what they can deliver. They might mislead people into thinking that the therapeutic services they’re receiving from their “AI therapist” are on par with what real-life professional counselors can offer.

While AI may be able to offer human-like responses, it is unable to empathize and express true compassion. Clearly, AI can never provide teens with the level of connection that a human therapist can. Critics argue that AI should function only to support mental health professionals, never to replace them.

Article Courtesy of Newport Institute

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