Growing up in a digital world

The good, and bad, impacts of technology on our children.


Technology has become an omnipresent force in the lives of Canadian children. They bring their phones to school, they work on computers at school and at home, they sleep with tablets and other devices on their bedside table. Almost half of their waking hours, and those of their parents, are spent in front of a screen.

With such pervasive presence of technology in our lives, it’s no surprise that there are a lot of strong opinions about how this new reality is affecting our younger generation. Many fear that technology is a peril, one that is holding back social, emotional, cognitive, and physical development. Spurred on by media warnings, people also blame exposure to technology for dangerous behaviours such as cyberbullying. Others believe technological progress is inherently good, with benefits such as increased connectivity and access to information outweighing any potential risks.

According to Jason Daniels, Extension researcher with a background in cognitive development, it’s not that simple. “Technology undoubtedly brings both promise and peril, benefits and potential risks. The challenge is looking at a child’s digital life from all angles, to understand how technology is affecting things like social connectivity, creativity, problem solving, homework, identity, and even nutrition and exercise.”

Daniels has dived headfirst into this challenge, partnering with Harvard University professor Michael Rich and the Alberta Teachers’ Association (ATA) on Growing Up Digital, or GUD, a groundbreaking research project to examine both the education and health effects of technology. The GUD research team is on a fact-finding mission—to move beyond the rhetoric and fear surrounding debates about technology, beyond “moral” perspectives on the value of technology, to truly understand how technologies are changing the way students learn and socialize, and what it means to grow up in the digital age. 

The first stage of research was a survey of teachers and principals on how technology is used in the classroom, and their perspectives on students’ attention, stress levels, social abilities, and learning capacity. Teachers were also asked open-ended questions on whether they saw a link between changes in their students’ abilities and behaviour and increased exposure to technology and digital media. Results show that 71% of Alberta teachers believe that educational technology enhances learning, by improving access to resources, enabling communication with parents, and supporting students with unique learning needs. On the flip side, two-thirds also report high levels of distraction in the classroom, and most report increased social and emotional challenges amongst their students in the past three to five years. The consensus? Based on this survey, children are indeed growing up tired, anxious, and distracted.

Next steps

So where does that leave us? The most important thing for Daniels and the rest of the GUD team is finding a balanced perspective. “We aren’t going to come out of this with a recommendation to throw all technology out or ban children from having access to phones or tablets. That’s not possible, or really even desirable.”

The next step of their research is a survey of parents, to find out how families, both children and adults, are using technology every day at home. Findings will help teachers and parents make more informed decisions regarding use of and reliance on technology, at school and in their private lives. Daniels also hopes to equip the younger generations with the tools they need to develop healthfully, and eventually make their own decisions and practice mindful use of technology. “They have to grow up in this world. They have to learn how to navigate it, live successful lives as adults. It’s not going away,” he says, “so let’s understand what it means. If there are negative effects, let’s confirm what they are, and then figure out what we can do about them. If there’s something that we gain from technology, something that improves our lives and ability to learn, we need to find a way to ensure that everyone has access to those benefits.” The sooner we understand the long-term effects on individuals and society, the sooner we can take action to ensure our children and youth are growing up healthy, balanced, and happy.

Later this month, Daniels will be presenting on the positive and negative impacts digital media can have on childhood development at the Riverbend Edmonton Public Library. He will share practical solutions for parents to manage their kids' (and their own) use of technology. Learn more and register for this FREE event on the event page.