From the Field

How are Teens Using AI?

Two new surveys, both released this month, show how high school and college-age students are embracing artificial intelligence. There are some inconsistencies and many unanswered questions, but what stands out is how much teens are turning to AI for information and to ask questions, not just to do their homework for them. And they’re using it for personal reasons as well as for school. Another big takeaway is that there are different patterns by race and ethnicity with Black, Hispanic and Asian American students often adopting AI faster than white students.

The first report, released on June 3, was conducted by three nonprofit organizations, HopelabCommon Sense Media, and the Center for Digital Thriving at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. These organizations surveyed 1,274 teens and young adults aged 14-22 across the U.S. from October to November 2023. At that time, only half the teens and young adults said they had ever used AI, with just 4 percent using it daily or almost every day.

Emily Weinstein, executive director for the Center for Digital Thriving, a research center that investigates how youth are interacting with technology, said that more teens are “certainly” using AI now that these tools are embedded in more apps and websites, such as Google Search. Last October and November, when this survey was conducted, teens typically had to take the initiative to navigate to an AI site and create an account. An exception was Snapchat, a social media app that had already added an AI chatbot for its users.

More than half of the early adopters said they had used AI for getting information and for brainstorming, the first and second most popular uses. This survey didn’t ask teens if they were using AI for cheating, such as prompting ChatGPT to write their papers for them. However, among the half of respondents who were already using AI, fewer than half – 46 percent – said they were using it for help with school work. The fourth most common use was for generating pictures.

The survey also asked teens a couple of open-response questions. Some teens told researchers that they are asking AI private questions that they were too embarrassed to ask their parents or their friends. “Teens are telling us I have questions that are easier to ask robots than people,”  said Weinstein.

Weinstein wants to know more about the quality and the accuracy of the answers that AI is giving teens, especially those with mental health struggles, and how privacy is being protected when students share personal information with chatbots.

The second report, released on June 11, was conducted by Impact Research and  commissioned by the Walton Family Foundation. In May 2024, Impact Research surveyed 1,003 teachers, 1,001 students aged 12-18, 1,003 college students, and 1,000 parents about their use and views of AI.

This survey, which took place six months after the Hopelab-Common Sense survey, demonstrated how quickly usage is growing. It found that 49 percent of students, aged 12-18, said they used ChatGPT at least once a week for school, up 26 percentage points since 2023. Forty-nine percent of college undergraduates also said they were using ChatGPT every week for school but there was no comparison data from 2023.

Among 12- to 18-year-olds and college students who had used AI chatbots for school, 56 percent said they had used it for help in writing essays and other writing assignments. Undergraduate students were more than twice as likely as 12- to 18-year-olds to say using AI felt like cheating, 22 percent versus 8 percent. Earlier 2023 surveys of student cheating by scholars at Stanford University did not detect an increase in cheating with ChatGPT and other generative AI tools. But as students use AI more, students’ understanding of what constitutes cheating may also be evolving.

More than 60 percent of college students who used AI said they were using it to study for tests and quizzes. Half of the college students who used AI said they were using it to deepen their subject knowledge, perhaps, as if it were an online encyclopedia. There was no indication from this survey if students were checking the accuracy of the information.

Both surveys noticed differences by race and ethnicity. The first Hopelab-Common Sense survey found that 7 percent of Black students, aged 14-22, were using AI every day, compared with 5 percent of Hispanic students and 3 percent of white students. In the open-ended questions, one Black teen girl wrote that, with AI, “we can change who we are and become someone else that we want to become.”

The Walton Foundation survey found that Hispanic and Asian American students were sometimes more likely to use AI than white and Black students, especially for personal purposes.

These are all early snapshots that are likely to keep shifting. OpenAI is expected to become part of the Apple universe in the fall, including its iPhones, computers and iPads.  “These numbers are going to go up and they’re going to go up really fast,” said Weinstein. “Imagine that we could go back 15 years in time when social media use was just starting with teens. This feels like an opportunity for adults to pay attention.”

Jill Barshay is a senior reporter at The Hechinger Report, where she writes the weekly “Proof Points” column about education research and data. This column was initially published by The Hechinger Report.