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 that  “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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