BusinessDay: Are we outsourcing parenting to technology?

The dark cloud over our techy-smart children is very dark indeed, so be vigilant about their exposure to smart technologies

By Johan Steyn, 30 June 2021

Published by Business Day: https://www.businesslive.co.za/bd/opinion/columnists/2021-06-29-johan-steyn-are-we-outsourcing-parenting-to-technology/


“Hey Google, play some children’s music!” I had to smile. My seven-year-old son was sitting in the bath howling commands to the Google Home device in the next room. Promptly his wishes were obeyed and a strangely apt BBC nursery rhyme played: “I am a robot, I go beep, beep, beep, beep bop.” “Hey Google, set the volume to seven.” Music was now blaring throughout the house and it is here where dad had to take over control of our artificial intelligence (AI) house guest.


These days many children are exposed to smart devices almost from birth. Parents can place a smart device in their little one’s room that could monitor the temperature, humidity, sounds and movements. Changes are sent to their smartphones and they can even view a direct video feed from the nursery.


Technology can be a wonderful companion to children and parents alike. The smart technology era has opened a marvellous world of techno-childcare and techno-education. Our children are growing up amid technological opportunities that we can hardly imagine. But we should not allow the silver lining to hide that the dark cloud it surrounds is very dark indeed.


The dangers facing our children were highlighted by Unicef and the World Economic Forum in a report titled “Children and AI: Where are the opportunities and risks?” The first, and perhaps most important concern is around identity protection. Smart devices allow children to interact with them, to ask for songs or stories and to have conversations. Data analytics and machine learning algorithms “learn” about the child, their identity and location detection. A child may innocently provide a host of personally identifiable information as she interacts with the device. She may talk about her school by name, the names of her friends and parents and the area she lives in.


The report also identifies potential emotional and psychological ramifications. We need to pay close attention to the development of our children’s socio-emotional skills as they grow up with technology. Children could easily develop emotional attachments with animated characters that look like people. They are drawn into a counterfeit virtual world that can easily distance them from the real one. Virtual Reality headsets and in time hologram 3D images of characters will further advance the disconnect.


Another concern is the potential cognitive implications. We are still not sure what AI can do to the human brain, let alone those of small children. The report asks: “What happens when we hand over cognitive tasks to AI, what are the implications of the attention economy? What are the psychological implications — depression, anxiety, social skills?” Most concerning is the topic of cognitive manipulation. “What does it mean to use AI to direct or control children’s behaviour?”


The global lockdown forced children to stay at home. Bored and curious, many children started spending long hours with their computers, tablets and smart devices. In a report titled “Children at increased risk of harm online during global Covid-19 pandemic”, Unicef highlights the risks of increased sexual exploitation to the estimated 1.5-billion children who have been forced to stay at home during the pandemic.


Focusing on our own country, the report warns that “In SA, the current lockdown may put children’s privacy in danger as they spend more time online. They may be more likely to encounter online risks, including being exposed to child sexual abuse material, or child sexual abuse and exploitation. And while sharing images and stories of lockdown and its challenges through social media is a way to stay connected, children’s rights to privacy and protection should not be compromised.”

Parents should be vigilant about children’s exposure to smart technologies. We should ensure that our children are “street smart” and informed, but they should not fear this technology. We can never just hope for the best as we outsource parenting to technology. We should be informed and involved in our children’s technological future.


• Steyn is chair of the special interest group on artificial intelligence and robotics with the Institute of IT Professionals of SA. He writes in his personal capacity.