Generation Next: How growing up in a digital world may help or hinder our children’s future

Learning using tablets at school.
Learning using tablets at school.

Our children are being born at the peak of an unprecedented technological revolution.

Most of us remember what life was like before smartphones, high-speed fibre and on-demand television.

At the same time, we're also tech-savvy and Google smart. We were there for the birth and boom of social media, the rise of e-commerce – and the fall of the tickey box.

We have navigated life both with and without the internet, before robots and virtual reality went from fun fantasy to matter of fact. Our children, on the other hand, will never know what it's like to wait patiently for their favourite TV show to air once a week.

They'll always be able to delete a selfie they don't like. Social media will forever remind them when someone is celebrating a birthday and, as long as they have an internet connection, they'll never need a map book to find their way home.

Is that really a good thing?

Sceptics worry that the digital age will hurt the base intelligence of the next generation – our children's generation. Should we be worried? Are our children getting dumber, or should we view this as an inevitable consequence of evolution?

"It's a bit of both," says author and potential human expert Nikki Bush.

She highlights that while technology has made the human race infinitely more effective, efficient and able to do things faster, quicker and easier, in many ways, it's stopped us from using our brains the way we have in the past.

"Many of us today use Waze or similar navigation applications. These apps are amazing. Not only are they digital maps but also crowd-sourced pieces of artificial intelligence that help us enormously.

"But, if you're a child, or even an adult, and you don't know how to find your way around town, you're not creating the neurological pathway in your brain to develop a sense of direction, because you've never had to," Nikki says.

Also read: 39% of South African parents don't know what their kids are doing online 

We can't live on technology alone

Map books are not the only thing that will have become redundant owing to technology. With the world going digital, few people put pen to paper anymore.

So, is it even necessary for our children to learn to write (let alone write in cursive)? "Yes, of course! When there's no electricity, and you can't charge your smartphone or laptop, you better hope that your child knows how to write. What if their survival depends on it?" Nikki is adamant that children need to learn to operate without technology too.

So what can we do to empower our children?

Nikki suggests taking your family on a weekend adventure without internet connectivity. "Teach them how to read a map; use a compass. Give them a sense of direction and bearing – survival skills they could use without relying on connectivity," she says.

"Technology has done a lot for the world, but let's not throw the baby out with the bathwater. Encourage your children to have a bit of general knowledge so that they can have a conversation," adds Nikki.

Build confidence online and offline

"We need to give our children the benefit of online and offline experiences so that they are confident in those spaces. Ensure that they have the high-tech skills and the high-touch skills to exist in both worlds at the same time, as the intersection is where the power lies."

Nikki stresses the importance of imaginative and educational play, including board games that stimulate general knowledge and sharpen short-term and long-term memory.

"Teach your children to flex those muscles. Build puzzles or play games like Pictionary, 30 Seconds or even 'I spy…' in the car. Don't let those things die."

She adds that writing and similar offline skills unlock the creative side of the brain that, incidentally, is key to surviving and thriving in the future world of work.

Also read: WATCH: This 14-year-old girl is finally getting credit for viral TikTok dance 

Future-proof your child

Creativity is one of five "X-factors for success" Nikki highlights in her latest book, Future-Proof Your Child for the 2020s and Beyond, which she co-authored with futurist and business strategy consultant Graeme Codrington.

She explains that stimulating your child's creative side will teach them to think outside the box. This should later translate into innovation and original thinking, which our children will need to thrive in the workplace of the future.

The other X-factors she and Graeme highlight in their book include a love of learning, resilience, self-knowledge and being able to work in a team. According to Nikki, these are the key qualities our children will need to navigate the future.

"Sixty percent of the jobs our children will do have not yet been invented, and more than 60% of our children will need to be entrepreneurs," she says, adding that previously reliable career paths – law, engineering, medicine, architecture, accounting – are being threatened by technological development.

"Certain industries are rising, while others are falling, and some jobs exist one day and not the next. We're raising our children in an era in which there are no guarantees. The only thing that has not changed is the way children develop."

Prepare your child for a changing path

Artificial intelligence, robotics and the internet of things are examples of concepts and technologies that are replicating what people can do at a much faster pace with little to no human interaction.

As a result, an increasing number of universities and employers are looking for candidates who offer more than just book smarts. The employees of the future need to be human as well, with the world favouring passionate, empathetic, engaged people with niche interests and unique skill sets.

Most of us struggle to imagine our infants and toddlers as part of the working world, but we must instil in them the attitudes and values they'll need to survive and thrive in the future.

The path is changing constantly

"Life does not unfold in a straight line, and our kids need to be able to bounce back when there's a curve in the road. If in future, they're in a job, and suddenly that job no longer exists, they need to have the skill and the attitude to be okay with being redeployed in an organisation, maybe even to a job they're not even completely qualified for," Nikki says.

She adds parents also need to be flexible because the future we've envisaged for our children might not be the future that comes to pass.

"We need to prepare our children for a changing path. We can't prepare the path for the child anymore because the path is changing constantly and dramatically.

"Our children need to have the resilience, the resourcefulness and the adaptability to be able to go out into the world and create their version of happiness and success."

Teach them to take the initiative

When it comes to the impact of technology on our society, educators are concerned about a lack of initiative among children today – starting from preschool.

According to Nikki, the workplace of the future will be on the lookout for self-driven young people with an internal locus of control. Successful future employees will need to be internally motivated. They'll need to have initiative.

Unfortunately, many children today are over-scheduled and experience little to no free time for imaginative play, or to be bored, which stimulates initiative. Rather, if the children of today are not occupied with an adult-directed activity, they're focused on a device that tells them what to do.

"Children are getting used to the visual and auditory prompts in a video game or an app, which tells them when it's time to change activity and what to do next. So if nothing or no-one tells them what to do, they don't do anything, which is concerning."

Also read: 10 couples who 'failed' at physical distancing, and want everyone to know it 

Brand family: The hidden curriculum

In an attempt to ensure a better future for our children, most of us will strive to offer them the best level of education we can afford.

We trust that the school curriculum will be sufficient to ensure the success of our children. But Nikki is not convinced that the formal school curriculum will be enough to future-proof our children.

"School is not the same as curiosity, learning and developing X-factors. Family, however, provides an important hidden curriculum," she says.

She urges parents to build strong family foundations for their children so that, amid a consumer-driven, information-dense world, they choose to connect with their family, because that is where their safety and security should lie – outside of devices and the digital world.

"Family is where it all begins. We are our child's first teammates and their value creators. Family is a barometer against which other value offerings can be measured."

Role model our good use of technology

Nikki adds when it comes to technology it's important that we role model our good use of technology for our children. "Devices should never become divisive in your relationships. Make sure your children have the skills to use devices healthily and to use good judgement when they need to measure other value propositions."

She says while the rise of technology has its downside, like anything else, it's also proven itself as an asset, and as parents, we need to accept the world is changing.

"No parent wants their child to live a narrow, screen-based existence, but at the same time, our children must have the technological know-how to support themselves in business one day."

Nikki believes we need to be steadfast in our values but also flexible and expansive, with a finger on the pulse of the changing world. "We have to embrace the future with courage and optimism. Otherwise, our children will be fearful of the future."

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