Plugged In: Growing Up in a Digital World

I remember being overjoyed when my parents bought our first dishwasher. Overnight I was rescued from the drudgery of washing dinner plates. I was even more ecstatic when my parents bought our first colour television. I still laugh when I tell my children, “Mommy used to watch television in black and white”.

Board games, record players, paper books, air guitar with tennis rackets, and outdoor play were the substance of my weekends and summer vacations. I feel a sentimental attachment to these experiences, especially as I watch them being transformed by technology. My kids have their movies on demand and can find their way around an itunes library. When they are playing I overhear their Barbies talk on cell phones and their Polly Pockets invent devices that navigate a miniature terrain. In these moments I feel as if I am standing between two worlds. I am an immigrant to this new digital world but my children are its true digital natives. They have never known a world without internet, computers, handheld devices, and screens to navigate by.

We love our technology and who couldn’t − it has given us tools to do things we only once imagined. The fact is though, with every step forward there are losses left in its wake. As a parent raising children in a digital world I am left to contemplate whether all these technological devices are what my children really need? What is lost when screens and devices become part of their play? How do I make sense of these new tools and the role they serve in my children’s life?

David Suzuki suggests when a new tool is introduced, it takes one to two hundred years for new rituals and customs to form around its use. I don’t have two hundred years to figure this out and neither do my kids. Parents continuously face questions whether they should allow their kids to have a facebook page, cell phone, play video games, or post content and surf on the Internet. The problem is we will never find our answers if we keep asking these type of questions. We need to consider the heart of this issue, that is, how do these new tools help or hinder our children’s development?

The irreducible needs of children are very clear from a developmental perspective. First, our children need to become their own person and develop their own ideas. The way they start to develop this sense of agency and become an actor in their world is through play. It is here they play fight, play house, and play at figuring out the world around them – consequence free. This unscripted, unmitigated play is critical to eventually figuring out who they are. The question is whether technological devices foster this type of play in our children?

The type of devices our children have in their hands have the capacity to rob them of their expressive and exploratory play. Our children are often at the mercy of other people’s ideas, which only serves to limit theirs. What can possibly compare to the stories they can create and the adventures they go on with their trains or dolls? There is so much that needs to come out of them. We need to stay cognizant to what gets lost when they are bounded by a device, an algorithm or another person’s ideas. Their expressive and exploratory play is the vehicle for growth into personhood and without these spaces they cannot make their internal world emerge.

The other irreducible need of children is that they need rest in order to grow. As an adult I often feel overwhelmed with too much information bombarding me. My attentional systems are often overtaxed and I have taken multitasking to an all-new level. I don’t need any more information, I just need some time, space, and rest so I can process it. Our children need the same so they can find their own questions and develop their own meanings before being introduced to other people’s answers. Our children need spaces free of distractions, information, and entertainment so they can focus on what interests them. When the focus is on putting information into them, we lose sight of the questions that were meant to come out first.

The other irreducible need of children is to experience their world in a vulnerable way where the losses and lacks of life are truly felt. From the checker games they never win against their grandfather to the sports activities where winners and losers are clearly defined − these all serve to teach them something. These small losses are what prepare children for the big upsets that will be part of their life too. There will be jobs they don’t get, people that don’t love them back, and constant reminders of the unfairness of life. Does a videogame world with a reset button and endless lives prepare our children for the world they will live in? I fear not. We cannot possibly exchange the lessons learned in the real world, in real time, with the world that is created on our screens. There is too much lost and so little that is learned when the futilities of life come with a reset button.

I love my technology but this isn’t about love. It is about developmental readiness that needs to be considered when putting these tools into our children’s hands. Our children need to be full of their own ideas before we introduce them to the ideas of so many others. They need to have the space to attend to the questions inside of them instead of the distractions posed by too much information and entertainment. They need to be able to accept the futilities of life in the real world and with people that were meant to be their life teachers.

To keep this new world in perspective, I view my children’s new tools on the same level as all the other treats they desire. As Gordon Neufeld says, “there is nothing wrong with cookies but every parent knows there is a time and a place for them”. Cookies are treats and we ought to savour them − their sweetness need not blind us. Treats are just cheap substitutes for the real things that were meant to nourish and grow us. Parents have always been the ones to decide when cookies are in order. Treats shouldn’t be eaten on an empty stomach and before all of the other good stuff goes in.

Healthy development is always a matter of timing. Parents were meant to act as buffers against the outside world and determine when children are ready to experience it. Before we plug our children in, we need to consider what they will be unplugged from. Helping them become their own person is the goal and parents are still the best devices that help them get there.


Copyright Deborah MacNamara, PhD, Kid’s Best Bet – Dr. Deborah MacNamara is a counsellor in private practice and on faculty at the Neufeld Institute. She works with parents, educators, child-care and mental health professionals in making sense of kids from the inside out. See or for more information.