It is the nature of teenagers to push boundaries. It is a developmentally normal way of testing the values, skills, and decision-making capacity required to be a successful adult. The difference back in the day was that there was only one world to navigate: today there are two. Learning to live in the in-person world was tough enough, but today’s young people also need to navigate a virtual Wild West. It is a Frontierland with few sheriffs and even fewer lawmakers. And now we have Artificial Intelligence (AI) gifting these pioneers a buffet of incredibly powerful technological tools that can be both plowshare and pistol, depending upon the intent of the user.
The world of K-12 education is seeing more and more stories that show how much harm is possible when young people use AI tools with bad intentions. In September 2023, El Pais reported a story from Spain where dozens of girls reported their deep-faked AI-generated nude photos being circulated in their community. Teenage boys at a high school in New Jersey targeted their female peers in the same way, generating worldwide coverage as a cautionary example of something that is a frightening prospect for parents, young people, and schools everywhere. Another incident, this time at a school in Rio de Janeiro, involved middle school students creating and sharing deepfake pornographic images of around 20 of their classmates. And a teacher in Texas was targeted by a student who digitally created fake revealing photos of her, then shared the explicit images online. This school-based deepfaking phenomenon is not confined to sexually explicit material. Back in March 2023, a group of high school students at Carmel High School in New York City made a deepfake video of their Principal shouting racist slurs and threatening students of color. It caused a huge scandal and incalculable damage to the Principal’s reputation, despite the video being completely and utterly fake.
How long will it be before another student is the terrified victim of a malicious deepfake incident in one of our schools? Or one of your children, or their friends, or their teachers? This is a threat that potentially targets all students, given its powerful potential to inflict identity-based harm. And it is a threat that is all the more likely to target historically marginalized identify groups. Make no mistake, there will be other cases like the ones above, as unrestricted access to AI tools allows children and young people to create and manipulate digital content in ways that were never previously possible.
The problem in these cases is not AI per se, or the tools used to create the images. The problem is the intent of the students involved in the creation and circulation of images that cause so much heartache and distress. It is a problem compounded by the ethical immaturity of the perpetrators, mixed with the kind of identity-based peer-to-peer abuse that is all too common in the online lives and experiences of young people in that largely unregulated Wild West that is the internet.
To be clear, this is a societal problem. It is not a problem which can be foisted solely on schools. The online jurisdiction and influence of a school ends when that student leaves campus and switches on their mobile phone - out in the world, or at home, or when they are out with friends. Schools cannot be expected to be there when students are online gaming, or when they are connecting through social media late at night. And it is at those times when teenagers are at their most vulnerable to that urge to push boundaries, and to pressures of bad actors in their online lives.
This is why we need parents to step up - and fast. If you are a parent, we need you to step up before your daughter, or your daughter’s teacher, or another vulnerable young person you know is the target of the next traumatic deepfake case. If ever there was a time for parents to have an open, honest, and real conversation with their children about ethically responsible and respectful digital citizenship, it is now.
It is time for schools and parents to get on the same page when it comes to teaching around ethics and moral choices, as well as supervision, around online access. If this does not happen, then we should not be surprised when teenagers - with their biological urge to push boundaries - continue to exercise their worst selves when roaming the prairies and plains of the next Last Frontier.
Dr. Nigel Winnard has been an international school director for 19 years. He currently serves as Head of School at the American School of Rio de Janeiro and is President of the Association of American Schools in Brazil.