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Movies can be a very powerful medium for conveying ideas. For example, when I first watched The Matrix in a crowded movie theater 17 years ago, I had one of my first truly eye-opening film experiences. Keep in mind that I was a senior in high school at the time, but that film really made me think about questioning our day-to-day reality. It also made me contemplate how technology could play a significant role in our trajectory as a species.
Of course, this was just a few months before Y2K was potentially going to send us back to the dark ages (Thankfully, it didn’t). This was also a time when technology was making a pretty massive shift into what could be loosely termed “the modern age of Internet.” The future was going to bring about some very interesting changes. Our “Matrix” would soon be filled with people checking their Facebook pages and playing “Angry Birds.”
In my wildest dreams as a young man, I never thought that one day I’d get paid actual American dollars to sit in front of a computer, writing about topics that interest me, streaming unlimited free music and sipping coffee brewed from vacuum-sealed pods. In my wildest fantasies, I never imagined owning a hand-sized touchscreen device that could instantly connect me to nearly unlimited amounts of information, allow me to chat with almost anyone in the world and give me accurate, real-time driving directions (usually).
“The Matrix is everywhere. It is all around us. Even now, in this very room.”
Today, tech is ubiquitous. No big deal. Millennials don’t even know what the world was like before the internet. Instead of silver spoons, kids are growing up with iPhones in their hands. My son isn’t even 18 months old, and already he covets the smartphone. He has no idea what it does. He just knows that he wants it. We try not to use our phones around him too much, but the siren’s call of that little glowing screen is strong.
Bad Guys Are Everywhere
When I compare my early years to the kind of childhood my one-year-old son could potentially have, it’s hard not to be apprehensive. As a kid growing up in the ’80s in a small New England town, my childhood involved lots of exploring the woods behind my house, climbing trees and riding my bike up and down the driveway (no helmet). Almost every summer weekend, my mom took us to Speck Pond to go swimming. I did cannonballs off a big floating platform covered in green astroturf. I ate cheese whiz and crackers. These are my fondest memories of growing up.
Today if I let my son swim in a pond, amoebas might eat his brain.
Of course, I wouldn’t even know about brain-eating amoebas if it weren’t for my amazing touchscreen device. Thanks Google.
Virtually unlimited access to information, I’ve come to find, is a massive double-edged sword. In reality, deaths caused by brain-munching amoebas are extremely rare. But numbers aren’t comforting. It’s still one of a hundred potentially life-threatening perils that will forever reside in the back of my mind, including carbon monoxide, improperly installed car seats and pretty anything small enough for a toddler to choke on.
Wait … Is that a pistachio shell on the floor over there?
Bad things are everywhere, all around us, and the internet makes it very, very easy to read about them. You can spend hours clicking from one horrible story to the next. Information is power, but too much information can be crippling.
For the first 9 or so months of my son’s life, the big scary baddie was SIDS (sudden infant death syndrome), which is much more prevalent and insidious than pond amoebas. Early on, my wife and I read way too many articles, blogs and heart-breaking stories about SIDS than we probably should have. We followed the Safe to Sleep guidelines, which basically recommend that your baby sleep on his back inside a completely empty crib, utterly devoid of blankets, lovies, stuffed animals or any other comforting items.
For the first few months, we both constantly checked to make sure our little baby was still breathing (as all new parents do). Eventually, the super-fragile and scary infancy period passed, and now our little guy is walking and learning words. We made it. Now it’s on to the next big adventure: child proofing.
Technology: How Much Is Too Much?
If you die in the matrix, you die in the real world, unless you’re Neo. He can actually impose his will on the world around him. He can bend and sometimes even break the rules. He can hack the system. This is exactly what parents are constantly doing to hopefully keep our kids safe. These days, our primary focus is making the house “safer” and being perpetually diligent to ensure our toddler doesn’t somehow hurt or maim himself. Enter more technology:
- Baby monitor with audio, video and night vision.
- Auto-locking baby gates.
- Spring-action toilet bowl lid locks.
There are child safety gizmos galore on Amazon. Fear is the bread and butter of the entire child-proofing industry. That’s not to say that taking precautions isn’t a good idea, but there’s a kind of spectrum that runs the gamut from absolute child neglect to hardcore helicopter parenting. I’d say we’re about here:
Broad, instantaneous dissemination of information gives us virtually limitless access to unsettling news about tragedy, disaster and misfortune. Social media spreads it around even faster. Heartbreaking stories go viral. Most people are aware of this, and yet we still just can’t stop reading. Stories about bizarre accidents may help avoid a possible pitfall down the road. But at some point, isn’t it doing more psychological harm than good?
Misinformation is another big problem on the web. Unfortunately, not everything on the internet is true. I know this because The Oracle told me so. We have to look beyond the code on the screen and ask ourselves: “Is this real? Maybe I should do some fact checking.” Sadly, many people don’t have a healthy enough sense of skepticism anymore. Our attention spans are diminishing, one click at a time.
In 12 or 13 years, I can picture myself begging him to put down the VR headset and go for a hike with me.
There’s something mildly insidious about how technology draws us in like moths to a floodlight. It’s why I spend too much time on Reddit. It’s why my son cries when I don’t give him the smartphone. Eventually, the Matrix will assimilate him. It’s unavoidable, and I’ve accepted that. However, I just hope we can still encourage him to participate in non-matrix-related activities like riding bikes, playing outside and using his imagination.
In 12 or 13 years, I can picture myself begging him to put down the VR headset and go for a hike with me. I’ll say something like: “Think how cool it will be to Snapchat from the top of Rocky Mountain National Park! Your friends will be so jealous.”
I’ve Already Taken the Red Pill
Becoming a parent is taking the red pill. It’s a big leap into the unknown. There will always be dangers and threats out there. A healthy amount of worry and fretting is good, but it’s important not to let that become a sucking quagmire of anxiety and obsession. We all need to put in our due diligence, but we also can’t let our fear prevent our kids from exploring, trying things and learning about their world.
There might even be times when we think: “Maybe I should have taken the blue pill. It certainly would have been easier.” Of course, had we chosen the blue pill, there are a lot of amazing things we’d be missing. The red pill is hard work. It’s a huge responsibility. But it’s worth it.
My parents surely had their worries when I was a kid in the pre-internet days of yore. But they chose to let me explore and be a kid with a limited amount of rules and barriers. We can’t keep our children in safety bubbles and expect them to grow and prosper into well-rounded human beings. We just have to mitigate the biggest risks and hope for the best.
So for now I’m just going to pay attention to what my toddler is doing. We’ll play. We’ll explore. He’ll test my patience. He’ll fall occasionally. Hopefully I’ll be there to catch him for the big ones. I’ll try to teach him impulse control, common sense and, hopefully, critical thinking.
Eventually he’ll be allowed to use technology, but only in moderation, at least for as long as I’m in charge. I want him to enjoy technology, but I don’t want it to consume his life and prevent him from having experiences like exploring the great outdoors, going out to a movie, walking along the beach and dancing. I hope to convey the importance of doing stuff “IRL” instead of just reading about it on social media or watching a YouTube video. These are my lofty parenting goals.
One day many years from now, maybe we’ll sit down and watch The Matrix together. Although when we do it will probably be in 3D hologram format and I’ll be saying: “Back in my day, all we had was Blu Ray.”
Beren Goguen is a content marketer, #SEO geek, mountain biker, and eagle scout.