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Picture: SUPPLIED/UJ
Picture: SUPPLIED/UJ

No one who has been observing society since the turn of the millennium, and in particular over the past decade, can doubt that we are in the midst of the Fourth Industrial Revolution. It is raging all around us at a breathtaking pace, changing the way we live, teach, learn and work. And no one will be more affected by it than our children.

In response to this daunting challenge, and in recognising its responsibility as a technological and academic leader in Africa, the University of Johannesburg (UJ) is hosting a series of web-based discussion panels called Cloudebates that include academics, media, students, alumni and industry experts. 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 and deftly jumping from app to app, game to game, platform to platform and chat to chat. As you watch, you are amazed at their dexterity and proud that at their young age they seem to 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 indoor games and pursuits that you remember were constrained only by the limits of your imagination – and 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, sharing, working in teams, creating together, and disputation are all important functions of socialisation as individuals and the balanced development of the brain itself. In this respect, it is our first five years that prepare us for our lives.

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

As you watch your children, you may well ask 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 also 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 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 real-world implications later 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 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 are all increasingly occupying children’s waking hours, with addiction as the unintended outcome. 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 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 cravings, 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 these are palpable hazards. It is essential for the good of all that we ask how much technology is good and how much is bad. What is the correct balance between the advantage of technological dexterity and the danger of technological debilitation?

Creating tomorrow

The second Cloudebate on whether the Fourth Industrial Revolution is bringing about the demise of childhood will be held on October 30 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.

This article was paid for by the University of Johannesburg.

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