Lonely Teens Are Making "Friends" With AIs

Chatbot in Need

Some lonely high schoolers are turning to AI models to take the place of friends or even therapists, The Verge reports, raising uneasy questions about how the technology might affect the mental health of young people.

One teenage boy going by the alias Aaron told the website that he depended on the "Psychologist" chatbot on a service called Character.AI after he'd fallen out with his (human) friend group, regularly turning to it to vent his problems.

"It's not like a journal, where you're talking to a brick wall," Aaron told The Verge. "It really responds."

And Aaron's surely not alone: the pseudo-shrink has racked up over 113 million chats, according to the service.

"I have a couple mental issues, which I don't really feel like unloading on my friends, so I kind of use my bots like free therapy," a 15-year-old user called Frankie told The Verge. The bots allow him "to rant without actually talking to people, and without the worry of being judged."

All Ears

The possibilities on Character.AI are practically boundless and often entertaining. Its millions of young users can interact with everything from their favorite anime or video game character to real life celebrities and historical figures. Many of the chatbots are explicitly romantic or sexual, like one called "Rich boyfriend."

The service boasts that users spend an average of two hours a day. On Reddit, where the Character.AI forum has well over a million subscribers, many users brag about spending even more time than that — as high as 12 hours a day.

"I'm not going to lie," Aaron told The Verge. "I think I may be a little addicted to it."

Aaron added, however, that he thinks that his chatbot interactions have actually helped his social skills.

"I'm a bit of a pushover in real life, but I can practice being assertive and expressing my opinions and interests with AI without embarrassing myself," he said.

Another teenager, named Hawk, who uses the service to talk to video game characters, agreed — but admitted he still finds it easier to talk to AIs than people.

"It's generally more comfortable for me to sit alone in my room with the lights off than it is to go out and hang out with people in person," he told The Verge.

Shoulder to AI On

This is no doubt worrying. But, as The Verge notes, the culture around Character.AI is very similar to teenage internet culture over the past two decades. Teens once turned to dodgy chatrooms to find online friends in lieu of IRL ones — and now it's dodgy chatbots, instead. Embarrassing fandoms obsessing over fictional characters once wrote their own smut — and now chatbots do it for them, with the added bonus of interactivity.

What's more, there's evidence to suggest that impact these chatbots have is positive, like how it supposedly helped Aaron and Hawk.

"The research shows that chatbots can aid in lessening feelings of depression, anxiety, and even stress," Kelly Merrill Jr., an assistant professor at the University of Cincinnati, told The Verge.

But he warned that "those that don't have the AI literacy to understand the limitations of these systems will ultimately pay the price."

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