| Tech trends

How algorithms influence a child’s worldview

| 01 May 2023

An algorithm is a list of instructions used to solve a problem. Algorithms have been around for thousands of years, but lately we have made use of them in computers to provide us us with desired information and much more from smartphones, laptops, apps, and websites. However, there are also downsides to this, especially in the ways algorithms shape opinions, and most importantly, how they influence the worldview of children and young adults. We can look at TikTok, the most used social network among children, to illustrate the power of algorithms.

Algorithm structures are very similar to our everyday routines – they represent sets of principles and solutions to make things easier. Exactly as we naturally remember to brush our teeth correctly, digital devices know how to function thanks to codes made of algorithms. 

Artificial intelligence and machine learning

Although the terms artificial intelligence and machine learning are often but inaccurately used synonymously. The key difference is that AI can learn and act solely on external inputs without human interaction, and perform problem-solving tasks normally requiring human intelligence. This is distinct from machine learning, which uses data processing algorithms to perform certain tasks independently. While true artificial intelligence, as we know it from sci-fi movies, is still a distant future, machine learning and algorithms are building their way into more and more areas of our everyday lives.

Whenever we count anything, we automatically use ‘algorithms’ that resemble a programming language. But what is the difference between human beings and computers? Smart devices can do the math faster and more accurately. But sometimes, they work way too rigidly. Let´s have a look at how this affect children's attitudes and opinions.

Recommendations tailored to the user 

Kids today are commonly the early adopters of new technologies and apps that use artificial intelligence. According to the Global Kids Online studies from 2019, one in three internet users is under 18 years of age. Whenever children search information for school, watch entertainment content, listen to music, or communicate via social media, their activity is highly influenced by algorithms. 

Take any streaming service or social network and see how children use it to binge-watch and consume random content. Here, power lies in the sophisticated recommendation systems that hook the young viewers in. The longer the algorithms keep their audience engaged, the better for the app or website – the more viewers, the higher the chance to attract potential advertisers or commercial partners. And it works perfectly. For example, TikTok’s recommendation system is called “For You” and it determines users’ interests based on the accounts they follow, the content they view and all the videos they share or create. As such, it’s really hard for children to stop watching, as more and more attractive content keeps coming and coming.

Algorithms are one of many risk factors when it comes to excessive internet usage of children due to the combination of dopamine rush as well as shorter attention spans. A study conducted in 2016 showed that the average human attention span shrunk significantly to 8 seconds from 12 seconds in 2000. Constant consumption of content and information is one of the reasons. It also shows why the TikTok videos or short Instagram Reels are so popular and why children spend more and more time on the platform. 

Homogeneous streams of content tailored for the unique users of TikTok, YouTube or even Spotify can constrain the experience and radically limit their worldview. Take for example the filter bubbles, also called echo chambers, created by the social media set-up whereby users see only the content that fits their preferences. As a result, kids encounter only beliefs and content which matches their own opinions and taste – as such it may well become more difficult for them to accept other opinions and different viewpoints, potentially resulting in higher tendency for radicalization.

Stuck in the echo chambers

 Echo chambers and filter bubbles are “potent metaphors that encapsulate widespread public fear that the use of social media may limit the information that users encounter or consume online, thus failing to promote a shared experience of free-flowing information. Specifically, the concern is that social media algorithms combine with tendencies to interact with like-minded others to create an environment that predominantly exposes users to congenial, opinion-reinforcing,” say the authors of a paper published by the University of Virginia McIntire School of Commerce. The beliefs of users are amplified with repetition as an echo, while different views and alternative ideas are weakened or eliminated.

Taking decisions out of our hands

Algorithms not only define a child’s selection of content throughout the apps, they are also key for marketers aiming for young customers. Online shops try their best to meet the unique needs of their users. The approach they take and the emphasis they offer through the child’s website experience are shaped by algorithms. All the ads that pop up when users are browsing the Internet are based on their personal preferences and previous online behavior. Consequently, digital media creates demand for unnecessary goods and stimulates the customers’ appetite to spend more money. For example, manipulative advertisements aimed at kids appear in gaming apps that persuade young children to spend money on additional features and upgrades to improve their characters.

Being aware of the risks as well as the benefits introduced by online environments, UNICEF has created a new policy guidance on artificial intelligence for children. Protecting children’s data, ensuring safety, providing transparency and preparing kids for future developments in artificial intelligence are only a few of the principles that are recommended to follow. While algorithms can be remarkably useful and helpful, they are also properly criticized for trying to take decisions out of the user’s hands. What is important is that it’s never too late to take back control – even for children.

ESET Parental Control for Android ESET Parental Control for Android

Make the internet safer for your children

With ESET Parental Control for Android


Monthly newsletter