Parenting in the Digital Age: The Medium is the Message

In this first installment of my blog series “Parenting in the Digital Age,” I investigate the medium through which we choose to communicate. Whether it’s with our kids, our family or our friends, we make a conscious choice in how we get our message across. Why do we choose the specific media that we use, and what are the implications of these choices? Read on for more insight…


A wise man once said thatΒ  “the medium is the message.”

Marshall Mcluhan could not have possibly imagined how far and wide that message would go back in 1964 when he made his now-famous comment. Fast-forward to a digital world where the “message” is conveyed at warp speed, through a variety of media. The particular medium – whether it be an iPhone, laptop or tablet – is just one facet of the overall communication that is being sent. The medium is indeed the message as both are inextricably tied. A missive fired off via email takes on a decidedly different tone than a quick text message containing similar content.

McLuhan felt that our electronic devices were an extension of our nervous system. How prescient he was. How many of us get the jitters and twitches when our iPhone/Blackberry/smartphone buzzes, indicating another message? How many more of us twitch and jitter even more when we’re not able to address this seemingly important indicator?

The societal change in the past 15 years or so has had a profound effect on the way we communicate. Like anything, our behaviour trickles from the top down, from the way we address and interact with our work colleagues to how we liaise with our family members. No one is immune to this digitally wired world in which we reside. The new world order is firmly ensconced in our daily actions and, accordingly, the way we engage with our children. Regardless of how much we may resist technology in our lives, how many of us can live without it? This is particularly the case with parents.

On any given day, the following will occur, many times over:

  • A parent will text their child to make sure that the child got to school/returned home/arrived to a particular destination safely
  • A child will request the use of the family tablet, smartphone or computer in order to connect with friends, watch video, download music and more
  • A parent will use technology as a “babysitter” of sorts, in order to occupy the children long enough to complete a particular task
  • A child will spend countless hours on their game console fighting aggressors, playing sports and/or digitally connecting with a virtual world of friends

Love it or hate it, it is what it is. The technology of recent times is here to stay. The Internet was the stepping stone to bigger and better digital opportunities and our present world is a reflection of how far we’ve come. Technology is a critical part of our lives whether we like it or not. Whether it’s checking our email first thing in the morning, to downloading video and music, texting and more, we’ve reshaped our lifestyles in order to welcome the conveniences that technology provides.

To this end, our children are just as adept – and in some cases, more so – than we are in their use of the latest digital tools. They, too, are emailing, texting, streaming and sharing in the digital reality in which we reside. This being the case, parents everywhere do their best to “speak the same language” in an effort to connect with their children. A quick text to provide an encouraging word; a Facebook post regarding an uploaded image or a Tweet showcasing one’s child looking sweeter than ever – these are all commonalities in today’s digital age.

That being the case, these various methods of communication, both direct and indirect, make a profound statement about the relationship that we have with our children. A “Tweet” instead of a conversation. A “Like” instead of a verbal word of encouragement. This is the reality in many families. Of course there are varying degrees of these interactions but they exist, more so than ever.

If the medium is the message – which I will say for the record that I agree with this observation – what does this reality say about all of us as parents?

How does a “tweet” stand up against a real conversation with your son? Sure, you may have “liked” your teen’s latest Facebook picture, but did you actually talk to her about where it was taken and who took the shot? That harried and hurried text message that proclaimed your love for your child…did that truly have equal value to what could have been a heartfelt, face-to-face proclamation to your son or daughter?

The medium truly is the message. How we convey our thoughts and ideas says almost as much as what we are actually saying. This truism becomes even more salient when we introduce parenting into the mix. Ask yourself this question: how frequently do I communicate with my child or children via technology? Most of us would have to admit that we do it much more often than we realize.

If we continue on with the conclusion that the medium is truly the message, then technology, while it has its good qualities, can often present a digital barrier between parent and child. Therein lies the problem. In some instances, the messages that we are sending are muted in their delivery as they are conveyed through the ether. In other cases, the messages’ importance and urgency are compounded by the ping or buzz of whichever gadget is providing the information.

Don’t shoot the messenger. Instead, we must collectively look within ourselves as parents and examine whether or not we are truly just using technology as a convenience to interact with our children, or, ironically, using it to maintain a level of distance. In many cases, it may be a bit of both.

VIDEO: Marshall McLuhan – The Medium is the Message


Coming up in the next installment of “Parenting in the Digital Age” – Technology in the Classroom – Part 1

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  1. Elizabeth Pagel-Hogan says

    Tech is a big part of my parenting. I feel it has helped my far-flung family stay in touch with each other. My kids love sending texts to grandparents and aunts and uncles in Delaware, Georgia, Missouri…and FaceTime allowed us to sing songs and tell stories when we’re traveling…but we do try to set reasonable limits for everyone when it comes to “screen time.”

    1. Samantha says

      Technology no doubt has the ability to connect us with our families, both near and far. There’s nothing like seeing grandparents, aunts and other distant relatives and friends through our digital screens when we’re not able to see each other “live.” As you mentioned, the challenge is balancing when and how much we use our digital devices with our children, and where to draw the line. I try to balance how much my kids use tech, even the little ones, and it is admittedly difficult. It is so part of every aspect of our lives that it’s hard to turn it off – literally and figuratively. Thanks for commenting.

  2. Cheryl Leahy says

    I am going to go the other way in the family spectrum and say how tech has helped me keep in touch with my parents. My dad has never been a phone person, but since he started texting, he will send me something funny- a photo, a joke, etc…that lets me know in his own way that he is thinking of me. Prior to technology, we didn’t have an effective way to communicate on a regular basis since we live far away, but now we do! We Skype as a family as well, and I put my baby’s photos on a share site so my extended family who all live far away can see him grow up. I do see my relatives with older children struggle with screen time, though, and can see this being a major issue in the future for my family. I look forward to hearing additional insight into this culture we have all cultivated!

    1. Samantha says

      Cheryl, thanks so much for sharing your personal connection with technology and your insight. There is no doubt that the age in which we live has bridged a gap in terms of connecting the generations through tools such as Skype, Google Hangouts, and Facetime for iPhones and iPads. I use all of these myself with my kids and love them πŸ™‚ That being said, it’s certainly one side of a double-edged sword, as access to these technological advances has made our kids more tech-savvy on one hand and accordingly more tech-obsessed on the other. We all love what tech can do for us and now we battle with our children to get them to turn it off every so often. We’re sending them mixed messages about tech, but only because we can’t control how much it has become part and parcel of everything that we do – including our calls to grandma and our sharing of images and movies. I don’t want to put the genie back in the bottle, but it would be great if we could turn it off every so often. I know we theoretically can “unplug” whenever we want to but I have difficulty with doing this and I know that I’m not alone!

  3. Q says

    Great post! I’m not a parent, but I’ve seen many of the examples that you’ve presented. Human interaction is underrated these days and it hurts kids. So many of them lack social skills and have even affected them on job interviews. Technology is a wonderful thing, but it should never replace a face-to-face conversation or a hug.

    1. Samantha says

      Agreed that technology is indeed a good thing. That being said, it needs to be balanced with face-to-face interaction with our children which is more difficult to do these days. I would never want to completely rid myself and my family of the tools that make life easier and more interesting but drawing the line as to where and when to use technology is becoming harder to determine. It’s a work in progress for sure. Thanks for your comment πŸ™‚

  4. Kelly Stilwell says

    Hey Samantha! I stopped by on the UBP. My kids actually school online, and we love it. I write about online schooling quite a bit, and write about technology in education for the Examiner. I just wrote about testing yesterday I’d love for you to guest post sometime!

    1. Samantha says

      Hi Kelly,
      I’d love to hear more about your kids’ online learning. So great that they love it and I’m sure that this type of education will become more and more prevalent as we determine how to best school our kids. I’ll definitely drop by your site and look forward to connecting πŸ™‚
      Thanks for your comment.

  5. Stan Schwartz says

    You raise some interesting points. If the “medium is the message”, what are we saying when we spend so much time interacting through the use of technology? At the right times, whether one believes in “sensitive” or “critical” periods, technology has its place. It cannot replace relationships with all that they encompass, but it can support relationships when loved ones are far apart; it cannot replace the use of three-dimensional objects, but can, at the proper time, support spatial development and awareness. When seen as a tool for specific uses, rather than a “must have so my child will get into Harvard”, technology can be a powerful tool for learning and enjoyment. But, we can never lose sight of the importance of strong relationships and emotional well-being as the basis of success (in any way we choose to define it).

  6. Samantha says

    So true, Stan. If “The Medium is the Message,” then what we are saying is that the medium is equally as or more important than the message itself. That is, the fact that we choose to use a particular medium, whether it is an iPad, smartphone or otherwise speaks volumes about the type of interaction that we want to have. We so easily fire off an email with our immediate thoughts and reflections, but find it so much more difficult to say the same words to someone in person. Interesting and somewhat sad, if you ask me. That said, at least having the discussion is a way of opening up the lines of communication and perhaps opening our eyes to the fact that we’re more disengaged than we should be.
    Thanks for your insight and comments.

  7. Shal says

    Great post.
    From commments- no denying the fact that social face to face interactions are extremely important. However, there is this undeniable move towards and adoption of digital medium.

    Two points:
    1) Technology is here to stay and the digital medium is going to become even more a part of the growing generation’s life. The question is: how can we make this interaction more constructive
    2) It also becomes important then that we think about ways to make digital experiences more social. Can we create content or experiences which are used by kids along with parents/families?

    We have actually taken this belief and developed where Digital Kids and Digital families get a safe, fun, intelligent, engaging environment.

    Digital then becomes a conduit- much like playing basketball or a game of chess, where opportunities for healthy interactions exist. Not only on the time you spend on the platform- but even after it, discussing the events and stories.


    1. Samantha says

      Thanks for your comment and link – I will definitely check it out. Agree that the new generations are more adept and expecting of technology as being part of their day-to-day lives, so we’d best think of ways to channel their learning in a constructive manner. The medium is definitely the message, even more so these days.