No-one who has been observing society since the turn of the millennium, and in particular over the last decade, can doubt that we are in the midst of the Fourth Industrial Revolution. It is raging all around us at breathtaking pace, and it is changing the way we live, teach, learn and work. And no-one is going to be more affected by it than our children.
The University of Johannesburg (UJ) is taking this question very seriously. In response to this daunting challenge, and in recognising its responsibility as a technological and academic leader in Africa, UJ has devised a programme of web-based discussion panels - Cloudebates - that include academics, media, students, alumni and industry experts. And the second in the series is aimed at exploring how you, as a parent, should be responding to your child's immersion in the digital world.
What you see is what your child gets
As parents, all you have to do is watch your children's avid concentration as they manipulate their electronic devices, fluently jumping from app to app, game to game, platform to platform and chat to chat, seemingly without thought, to understand the depth of their involvement. And when you watch, you are amazed at their dexterity - you may be proud even, that at their young age they have mastered the world of everything digital. You watch them as they create and destroy whole virtual universes with avatars, surrogates and proxies - and sometimes, you're not even allowed to watch.
Then, if you've been thinking about it, as you surely have, you may be concerned that they are spending far too much time on chairs and couches, often alone, and apparently doing very well, like all their peers, without the outdoor, or even indoor, games and pursuits that you remember were constrained only by the limits of your imagination - games and pursuits that definitely needed playmates to make them really work.
The way we were
Until now, children have always grown and developed in the way human beings have evolved to grow and develop. Play, the rough and tumble of physical interaction, the necessity for sharing, working in teams, creating together, and disputation are all essential functions not just for the process of our socialisation as individuals, but for the balanced development of the brain itself. Indeed, in this respect, it is our first five years that prepare us for our entire future lives.
Today, with the advent of devices that are often used as babysitters by unwitting parents, passive absorption with attractive electronic graphics, inputs and outputs is beginning to replace real-life play and all that it provides for healthy development.
The way we are
Thus, as you watch your children, you may well be asking yourself: "Am I doing the right thing by allowing them such easy access to this digital universe?" On the other hand, you know that if you deprive them of this avenue, apart from unbearable resentment, you face abandoning them to a debilitating life in which their education, careers and prospects will undoubtedly suffer. Your answer may well be that what they really need is far more educational games and apps.
What you may not know is that neurologically speaking, the fact that a game or an app is educational makes no difference whatsoever to one of the fundamental issues at stake - addiction.
Passivity, gratification and boredom
The preoccupation with the virtual has very real-world implications later on in life. While no- one would deny that the use of cutting-edge technology in teaching and learning is essential for competitiveness and fitness for the world of the Fourth Industrial Revolution, the very accessibility of these devices makes them available for other uses as children grow.
Gaming, the watching of pornography, the preoccupations and power of social media, and the demand for abbreviated and instant content, often purveyed as "information", are all increasingly occupying the waking hours of children. And it is addiction that is the unintended outcome of all of this. The minds and brains of young users are being inhibited, and severely hampered in their development and capacity, by the chemical phenomena associated with addictive behaviour in ways that are no different from those induced by drugs.
The questions that parents need to ask
This is an outcome of the process in which continually more content is required to satisfy increased craving, to the extent that it can lead to anhedonia - a state in which the individual feels nothing, and is bored by everything. When it comes to the developing minds of children, therefore, it is clear that these are very palpable hazards. It is essential for the good of all, that we ask how much technology is good? How much is bad? How is the correct balance to be struck so that the advantage of technological dexterity is not hampered by the danger of technological debilitation?
These are critical questions for our children, and by extension, for our society, and UJ is fostering their much-needed discussion, examination and analysis in its second Cloudebate on whether 4.0 is the demise of childhood to be held on 30 October 2018.
As with the first Cloudebate, and especially if you are a concerned parent asking yourself how to do the right thing by your child, you are invited to join in on the web at www.uj.ac.za/4IR
It is by leading in research, by pioneering in analysis and in fearless investigation relevant to the developing needs of our children, our country and the future generations who will lead its advancement, that UJ is reaffirming its commitment to creating tomorrow.