With an intriguing combination of the sagacity of Confucius and the discipline of communism, the Cyberspace Administration of China (CAC) decreed in November 2022 that parents must regulate the use of smartphones for gaming activity to stay within these maximums: (1) all minors under age 18 to observe a daily curfew for gaming activity between 22.00 and 08.00 hours (2) all minors to be restricted to ninety minutes of gaming on weekdays and three hours at the weekend and public holidays (3) A monthly maximum spending of 200 yuan (€26) to be imposed on all aged under sixteen. Now, in August 2023, CAC has proposed further regulation to curb all internet surfing which it deems to be addictive and counter-productive. Not only will the night curfew be extended to such activity but escalated daily limits of time are to be imposed. These range from two hours daily for ages sixteen to eighteen to barely forty minutes for those aged under eight.
CAC claim that these restrictions are intended to promote a more positive role for young people in a greater educative environment which will negate addiction problems, improve mental health and counter physical ophthalmological problems such as conjunctivitis. Roskomnadzor, the equivalent Russian regulator, works in close liaison with CAC and is to implement similar measures. Both entities are responsible directly to state censors and thus concerned with national political health.
In his homilies, Pope Francis has often referred to the astonishing impact which cell phones have forced on a willing modern society. At the recent WYD jamboree in Lisbon, he warned of the dangers of a highly digitalized culture which may be derived from over-use of these devices and can adversely affect our concentration, academic performance and spirituality. This echoes the warnings issued by the Jesuits that we are bombarded with false images and bad options which cumulatively leave little space for recognition of our true selves and the human dignity which may be found in communal relationships.
The Pope is himself a user of a “smartphone” and recognizes that the new technology can be used to morally benefit society but he has been swift to condemn such enterprising priestly activities as providing digital services for exorcism and the confessional¸ both pre-paid by credit card. The papal wisdom is that human beings need to come together physically to express with warmth their thoughts and emotions and this cannot be done by zoom or the cold checking of screens every five minutes while travelling, eating and trying to sleep! “When you become a slave to your mobile phone, you will lose your freedom”.
The concept of slave like submission to a cyber devil is echoed by educators and philosophers world-wide. The South Korean Byung-Chul Han has likened the use of cell phones to being in a virtual prison from which spirituality has little chance of parole. He opinions that the denial of free thought and surrender to on-line narcissism stems from the introspective use of a profusion of digital tools and applications.
But the good intentions of CAC, prelates, politicians and social scientists to protect generation Z from their millennial parents and the dark agents of the Meta universe have little chance of success in the face of ongoing capitalistic greed and obsession with growth. Smartphones and tablets have become the modern baby´s dummy and are stuffed into cots , perambulators, playpens and the satchels of pupils regardless of the dangers of “blue light” to the eyes and the dubious moral representation of often grotesque cartoon characters which are streamed ad infinitum.
Looming over all of this debate is the prospect of generative artificial intelligence reaching a point by year 2030 when it will cease its beneficial supervisory role and seize direction of the internet. For some years Google, Facebook and similar cyber denizens have used AI to monitor every aspect of human frailty by collating from internet use the intimate details of our daily lives. This includes our religious and moral observances, our hopes and fears, good and evil from birth to death. From this data AI will be able to produce a synthesis of regulations appropriate to the geopolitical location of its sources and assume the role of master instead of servant.
Papa Faith and Mama Nature will need to work swiftly and with omnipotent empathy if mankind´s children are to be freethinking beings and not slaves in the Brave New Cyber World.