Watertight? Swimming in Today’s Digital Ocean

Our Little Citadel

There was a time when my husband and I thought if we made our home a fortress and stood sentinel at its drawbridge, a major part of our job as parents was done. Queen and King of our little citadel, we’d keep our hawk eyes on every coming and going. Good stuff in; bad stuff out. We managed making a stronghold for our family.

(But then, there was also a day when our house didn’t spontaneously spring a leak and leave us waterlogged for the better part of a year…)

Back in that Once-Upon-a-Time time, physical fortification worked. For example, because we weren’t excited about most public television, we decided to raise our kids sans. (We got the TV for those parent-approved DVDs, but otherwise never hooked the thing up for local channels, forget cable.) They read lots of books and integrated deeply during our years in Norway and France. And since we weren’t thrilled about video and computer games, we just never got them. One child did play them occasionally at a friend’s house, but he never did it enough to get hooked.

And so on.


Thus we managed. From our turret. Overlooking our moat. Admiring the pet crocodiles we’d tossed in for effect.

Then all at once, the whole world flooded.

The Digital Flood

At least it seemed like the flood was all at once. Somewhere in the early half of the 21st century — Monday, September 3rd of 2007, to be precise — I realized our fortress was under serious threat, tides were climbing swiftly, and soon we’d be neck deep in something I would never be able to control.

That was the day our eleven-year-old started a new school. In it, the One-to-One program was being piloted, meaning that personal laptops were required for every student and for all classroom work. That same year, same school, our youngest, then seven, also began doing much more schoolwork through digital means. I volunteered every week in class, and noted that many of his grade school aged classmates had smart phones. Some slightly older kids, still preteens, had social media accounts. At the same time, I discovered our sixteen-year-old was downloading movies, sitcoms, and something I learned was called Youtube clips on her laptop. (And I’d thought she’d been doing extra homework.)


Over the course of that single year, I watched rising, churning currents, the foisting tide of stimuli climbing our bastion walls. Whirls of Twitter, eddies of Pinterest, later surges of Instagram. Then came the stream of WhatsApp, WeChat. Snapchat . Torrents of Skype, LinkedIn, Tumblr. In no time – in the following few swift years — the tide spilled clean over the upper edge of my fortification. Today, I’m dog-paddling wildly, maybe like some of you friends, just to keep afloat. Talk about a sea change.

No wonder the latest digital tool is called Periscope.

The Flood and The Ocean

I need to add quickly that, as with nearly every flood, the current is mostly plain water. Common, innocuous — even life-sustaining, potential-filled, phenomenal — water. We need free exchange of information, and we need connectivity.

Furthermore, I’m certainly no techno-Grinch.  I haven’t taken to living off-the-grid, eschewing texts for smoke signals, homesteading and homeschooling in the Yukon, hauling wood chips for grilling road-kill possums on a spit, and weaving my own cloth from hemp and acorn floss.

No. I’m here with you on this screen, btw, passionately part of the modern world, and, um, on Instagram, Twitter, my three pages on Facebook …

But I am increasingly alarmed by three qualities of the digital ocean: the swiftness (we can’t possibly keep apace); the surreptitiousness (we can’t possibly plug every point of entry); and the mix (we can’t possibly filter all the possible toxins.) So please, elbows on the table, brows furrowed, I want a toe-to-toe, rigorous conversation with you about this.

If the digital ocean has radically and permanently revolutionized everything, what does that mean for parenting? From my teeny sample group of our own four children (raised pre and post flood), and from my larger sample group of countless youth and young adults with whom I’ve worked closely as a teacher, leader, counselor and lecturer in many different countries around the world, I’ve learned that our digital ocean has profoundly altered – heightened the need for vigilance and spiritual wisdom in — parenting. No home, including my own, is watertight. No physical fortress holds against this kind of pressure. We need something else, our kids need something else, and that something else has to be so much better than bricks, mortar and denial.

Check Out These Resources

To illustrate, consider if you are fully aware of what is happening in your child’s digital world.

Are you sure you have a clear sense of your child’s online activity?

Have you discussed in your family whether your child is being bullied, or is herself an online bully?  

Do you know of others involved in cyberbullying?

In disgust, fatigue or exasperation, have you gone off grid? Or have you considered instead, as I have, immersing yourself mindfully in the ocean?

Do you have stories you can share about how the digital ocean has altered your child’s behavior, including sleeping and communication patterns? Or what have you observed regarding the digital ocean’s effect on family cohesion – for better or worse? For depth, you might read this, or  this,  and/or this, and then share your comments.

Do you monitor your child’s online activity? 

What do you know about your child receiving (or sending) sexts?

Finally, and most pervasive and pernicious of all, how informed are you about young children, teens, and porn, deemed in this piece to be “the biggest health concern”?

If you’ve had success in responding to these needs, what is it you’ve done?

Finally, if you are interested in scholarly research on the topic, I really appreciated this piece.

A Sea Change, the Internet, and Swimming in the Infinite

As you can sense, our nasty house flood stirred up in me more than concerns for our physical watertightness. Above all, that flood was an ugly wake-up call to how vulnerable we are to the figurative floods that encroach, soak, infiltrate, and inundate. No home — whether a moated fortress or a firm German rental, like ours — is, in the face of today’s digital ocean, ultimately unassailable. No one is watertight. The age of fortress parenting with its high walls and sentinels is as outdated as the medieval fortress itself.

The Internet doesn’t hold us buoyant in a digital ocean.  It lowers us into complete immersion. So is our modern world. Today’s toddler who swipes her Daddy’s iPhone screen as naturally as my first toddler plugged his pacifier back into his own mouth, is growing up totally saturated in the vast digital ocean.  And with that ocean comes wonder, beauty, possibility as well as undertows, predators, and devastation. Given that truth, how will we – and as importantly, how will our children — learn to swim, and not drown in, the digital ocean’s infinite possibilities?

10 thoughts on “Watertight? Swimming in Today’s Digital Ocean

  1. This is such an important topic, Melissa. Vital. You’re right; our world has forever changed as a result of the Digital Flood. There’s no going back to life pre-computer, pre-internet, pre-handheld digital devices. I feel that as a global society, we’re still foundering. Even those who gleefully welcome the flood have no real sense of where all this water is taking us, how it can be controlled, or what the ultimate result will be, both positive and negative. As a human race, we’re still trying to figure out all the ground (or water) rules. Though, as parents, grandparents, caretakers, our impulse may be to rush to higher ground in order to avoid the flood altogether, experience quickly shows us that there is no real escape. Also, as you so beautifully point out, most of the water is *good*–“life-sustaining, potential-filled, phenomenal.” Obviously what we have to do is teach our children how to safely navigate the deluge. And we have to start very early. I love this video that my Church just released. It deals with helping young children know how to deal with pornography when (no longer *if*) they encounter it: http://overcomingpornography.org/spouses-and-families/what-should-i-do-when-i-see-pornography?lang=eng&cid=HP_TU_9-15-2015_dPTH_fOVP_xLIDyL1-B_ This is a great starting point.

    • Sharlee- I think your one comment supplants all I droned on about. 🙂 (Thanks for always nailing the point in one whack.) Key in your comment is the idea that we must start discussing and protecting earlier than we thought. A study I found indicated that the majority of US children as young as age eight have been, 1) self-trained in computer literacy, 2) given at least one personal digital device, and 3) exposed to online pornography. What does this mean for their future as computer literate, device holding, pornography-insulted teens and adults? I’m glad you posted the video clip. It is a great start at encouraging a rational discussion, and doing so early on.

      Thanks as ever. 🙂

    • Michelle—So glad you’re here. Yes, I read your piece just this morning. (Thank you for writing it, and I would never send you hate mail!) I have to admit that while reading I was nodding in vigorous agreement half the time, sighing in utter defeat the other half. Defeat because my experience (with my own children and also with so many youth with whom I work) has been that not having a smart phone has not been enough to keep pornography from leaking into these young lives. (Incidentally, only our daughter has had a smart phone, and that only when she went to university; the three boys have had dumb [and I think fab] phones.) I agree that one is measurably less likely to get into troubling content (not to mention the crazed obsessive behavior of checking dozens of times a day) without a mobile device. But the questionable content is everywhere, even if you don’t have the mobile device. You can be seven fresh and pure years old, sitting on a school bus, and the guy with the smart phone (the senior next to you, for instance) can show you (for kicks) illicit images. And when you’re eleven, the guys in the locker room can pass around images (of the girls in your next class. For instance.) Because they do and they will and they are right now … in most schools. And if you’re on a silly 12-and-under website to, let’s say, make innocuous cartoon drawings, predators can be there masquerading as 10 year olds, and they can find ways to send images to you. Once exposed — once the brain is ignited from the images — it can be a tough road back to “clean slate”. I know too many families that are overwhelmed by the daily warfare. You’ve done much better than most!

  2. I always hesitate to comment on this topic because my children’s story is not done and I will probably not know if I have done a good job with this until they are very old. Here is what I have observed though with my children. They are doing better with this than many of my own generation. When we first introduced them to technology they were very excited and even obsessed with the idea of it. But a few years later, they only use it as a tool and I find them more and more withdrawing from it, preferring real things instead. Here are a few things we did that I think contributed to their attitude towards technology and specifically social media. Once our children were allowed their own social media platforms, we set a few rules, but the most important was that for a year, they weren’t allowed to post anything, they were only allowed to observe. I guess you could call it a training phase. By the time they could actually participate, their enthusiasm for it was greatly diminished and they had also seen the good and the stupid that people contributed to their chosen platforms, so they hardly ever use it. The other thing we did is that we deliberately counter attacked. We read books aloud, took them to libraries, plays, had them learn an instrument. Chose movies deliberately, educated them on how to be picky. We also introduced them to good things to do on their computers, like music editing, photography editing, and usefull news and information sources. Now (except for the youngest) I don’t monitor. Not because I don’t think I shouldn’t, but because I can’t. I couldn’t possibly find the time to monitor all they do at school and at home. We talk about it regularly, asking them what they are doing and how much time they have been spending on devices, just like I ask them how much junk they ate at school that day, or constantly ask them if they have been kind. I think it is like everything else out there, it is manageable if you are a deliberate and concientious parent. If you are then there will be a certain confidence in your child and hopefully good communication. I believe that there is hope for our children, that they can be wiser in their technology use than many adults I know, partially because they are so use to it. I am very grateful that my children are learning the management of these things while still with us. But I guess that is my point, it’s a family affair, it takes a good home to make it safe and to make it work, no rule or strategie will really protect our children, although we do use them as part of being a good home, but it’s a healthy conscientious family environment that will keep our children safe. Even if they mess up, they will talk to us because they feel safe and their mistakes could be fixed in a proper way, teaching them lifelong valuable skills.

    • Tinsel, you have shared something even more genius that you might recognize. Requiring your kids to ‘test drive’ social media platforms for a full year before signing up for them does more than cause them to observe and filter and choose wisely. It also teaches delayed gratification, which, along with all the other stuff I’m going to be writing about related to technology and the digital ocean, is terribly important. The sense of immediacy —the raw speed with which info [and “likes”, and recognition, and “expert status”] is acquired — can create a kind of superficiality that worries me. But we’ll get to all that in future post. Your ideas are wonderful and inspiring. the word I’m hearing through and through is “deliberate”, and counter-attack is not too strong an approach, imo. It’s an alertness that rings like Michelle’s. (Do you know each other…? 😉 )

  3. I completely agree with both of you. Complete prevention isn’t possible and kids need to be guided by principles, not fear of punishment. All five of my boys have had things literally shoved in their faces in locker rooms and on the bus (some stereotypes just ring true), it’s their job to turn away (actually, I have an article about that in the Friend this month. I kind of forgot about that.). And like Tinsel (I really like her) we’ve tried to provide plenty of alternative activities. I’m outspoken here, but I didn’t post that Aug. 4th Deseret News article on Facebook until I read your words. Thanks for the conversation. We need to keep talking about media because it changes daily. Love you.

    • Love to you and Tinsel, too. Communication, communication, communication. Maintaining a climate of openness and safety within the family. Parents being as deft Webexperts. Filling the hours and minds with healthy alternatives, serious study (books!! Hello?) All good tips. Thank you!

  4. Pingback: Watertight? Swimming in Today’s Digital Ocean | Yah's Chandelier

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