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Hacking childhood: will future technologies undermine, or enable, optimal early childhood development?
  1. Robert C Hughes1,
  2. Sunil S Bhopal1,2,
  3. Alexander A Manu3,
  4. Generative Pre-trained transformer,
  5. Alastair C Van Heerden4,5
  1. 1 Maternal & Child Health Intervention Research Group, Faculty of Epidemiology & Population Health, London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine, London, UK
  2. 2 Population Health Sciences Institute, Newcastle University, Newcastle upon Tyne, UK
  3. 3 Epidemiology and Disease Control, School of Public Health, University of Ghana, Accra, Ghana
  4. 4 Center for Community Based Research, Human Sciences Research Council, Pretoria, KwaZulu-Natal, South Africa
  5. 5 SAMRC/WITS Developmental Pathways for Health Research Unit, Faculty of Health Sciences, University of the Witwatersrand, Johannesburg-Braamfontein, Gauteng, South Africa
  1. Correspondence to Dr Sunil S Bhopal, Newcastle University, Newcastle upon Tyne NE1 7RU, UK; sunil.bhopal{at}

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It’s 2041. Children born during the COVID-19 pandemic are graduating (virtually). For several decades, the internet has been part of everyday adult lives. But now, of course, so much more has changed, including for our children. It’s almost impossible to tell exactly when we really lost control. Where once, parents (mainly mothers) were considered primary caregivers, now child rearing is largely the domain of machines guided by the algorithms.

In the home, children are no longer loved and nurtured, but rather treated as commodities to be optimised. A parent’s job is not just to love and cherish their child but—working with the machines—to develop them into the best match to the desirable outcomes as possible. While initially controversial, this approach is increasingly evidence based; a recent study, conducted on a sample of 200 000 babies over 24 months, supported using 12-hour recorded language and emotion therapy sessions for infants.1 The study showed that the young children were more resilient in later years compared with peers receiving what was known previously as ‘play-based childhood development’. Other studies show how these autoparenting sessions enhance social skills among children under 5 years.1 Loved ones are now considered an unnecessary threat when it comes to social development—after all they can disrupt even the most carefully structured interactions designed by technical engineers. Some experts argue that it would be preferable to remove parents altogether from daily interactions with young children, because mistakes are all too easy to make.1 After all, parents tend to provide extraneous noise …

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  • RCH and SSB are joint first authors.

  • Twitter @, @sunilbhop, @Lexxxyman, @HSRCza

  • RCH and SSB contributed equally.

  • Contributors All authors conceived the piece together through a series of collaborative research meetings. All authors drafted and edited together.

  • Funding The authors have not declared a specific grant for this research from any funding agency in the public, commercial or not-for-profit sectors.

  • Competing interests None declared.

  • Provenance and peer review Not commissioned; externally peer reviewed.