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Is technology good or bad for your kids? Author Sophie Brickman on finding sanity as a parent in the digital age

Podcast & Video

This episode of Hub Dialogues features host Sean Speer in conversation with author and journalist Sophie Brickman about her fascinating new book, Baby, Unplugged: One Mother’s Search for Balance, Reason, and Sanity in the Digital Age.

They discuss the perils of parenting in the digital age, how to think about technology use when raising kids, and why open-ended play is so important to child development.

You can listen to this episode of Hub Dialogues on Acast, Amazon, Apple, Google, Spotify, or YouTube. A transcript of the episode is available below.

SEAN SPEER: Welcome to Hub Dialogues. I’m your host Sean Speer, editor-at-large at The Hub. I’m honoured to be joined today by Sophie Brickman, an American-based columnist at The Guardian, whose writings have appeared in The New Yorker, the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, and various other major publications. She’s also the author of the fascinating book, Baby Unplugged: One Mother’s Search for Balance, Reason, and Sanity in the Digital Age. The book, which is one-part deep dive into the research, and one-part personal memoir, is now out in paperback. I should say its insights about babies and technology have been valuable to me and my family as we raise a rambunctious 20-month-old. 

Sophie, thanks for joining us at Hub Dialogues, and congratulations on the book.

SOPHIE BRICKMAN: Thank you so much for having me.

SEAN SPEER: I heard you say that you wrote the whole book to prove your tech-savvy husband wrong. What do you mean?

SOPHIE BRICKMAN: So, my husband is a tech guy. Shortly before we got married, we lived out in San Francisco: I was a reporter out there and he was working at a startup. Then he founded his own company, and now he invests and so he is a big believer in the power of technology to just make everybody’s life better. And I am a skeptic, I guess, when it comes to that kind of stuff. When our oldest was born—she’s now six—the book opens with a scene that really did happen, where he had brought home some sort of beta stage tracker for her. She was two days old, three days old, they have just let us go from the hospital. I’m the youngest. I don’t have younger cousins, I’ve never really held a baby before. I didn’t know the first thing of what to do. And he said, “Oh, we can just smack this thing on her and it’ll just make sure that her heart is beating throughout the night.” I thought like, “Okay, sure, that sounds like a good backup.” And then, of course, the alarm went off from this device in the middle of the night. We didn’t know why. It turned out it had lost connection to the WiFi, but it made me very nervous. 

It made me very attuned to just sort of how thoughtless I’d been about the technology in my house, and sort of how appealing and shiny all of it can be particularly for young underslept parents. Dave, who I adore, and we have a wonderful, very strong marriage, sort of became a good foil to me because he kept bringing home various technological things. He grew up loving playing video games and loving watching movies and all these things. Together, we were two good sides of a coin, I thought, to explore this area that is very important for many parents.

SEAN SPEER: You’ve also said, Sophie, that we know our children better than Silicon Valley does. What do you mean by that? And what is the implication of that simple, yet kind of profound insight?

SOPHIE BRICKMAN: I mean, I think and you can tell me otherwise, but I think that there is sort of an understanding that when you become a parent, certainly when you become a mother, but when you become a parent, there is this understanding in society that you just know what to do. You have an instinct, you have a gut. If your kid is crying, you know that that cry is a real cry, you know that that cry is a manipulative cry, you know that they’re hungry. I didn’t know any of these things. And Silicon Valley is very, very persuasive at telling you that you’re not getting the support you deserve, which is true, and that technology can help, which is true in moderation. 

I think, over the course of reporting this book, I sort of learned how to find my gut, which I didn’t know, and certainly when kids get older it becomes easier in a lot of ways and then challenging later. I’m not yet at that phase when my daughter is going to be asking for a phone and, you know, all of those horrible and nerve-wracking parameters of social media. We’re still kind of in the sweet phase of all of it. But I would say that Silicon Valley makes a very strong case that you need a lot of these gadgets, and it’s very easy to buy into that line of thinking.

SEAN SPEER: Let me pick up on that point. Something I thought a lot about as I read the book is that so much of the technology geared towards babies is, as you outline, for monitoring sleep, weight, breathing, and any other number of things that can be measured. You spoke to a pediatrician for the book, who said that “If a child really needs such precise monitoring, he or she should probably be in the hospital.” 

Do you want to talk about what’s going on here? Do you think that parents have an innate desire for this type of comprehensive monitoring? Or is it a demand that’s been created by supply and effective marketing? What’s the chicken and egg here?

SOPHIE BRICKMAN: I mean, I think it’s a very complicated and important question, and I think it’s a little of both, which may be an unsatisfying answer. But I kind of went into the weeds of neurology to try to figure out what it is about my need to be monitoring these things. Is it deep in my fish brain that has been, you know, over the years, made me want to collect data? And in fact, yes, that is why we have risen to the top of the food chain. 

Evolutionarily, we have an adaptive trait, which is to collect knowledge and synthesize it. The issue is that before technology, before you were able to get however many hundreds of thousands of millions of hits on a given question that you log onto Google, you had a finite amount of information that you would see that was essentially screaming at you when you walked around the village square or the forest or wherever it was. Technology has developed so quickly that our brains are catching up. So, we’re kind of attuned to collect all this information and crunch it and kind of make reason out of madness or order out of chaos. But that’s a real fool’s errand. 

I think that’s part of it. I think that we have always wanted to do this, but the introduction of technology has made it particularly exacerbated and turned it all up to an eleven. In terms of the need being created by marketing, like, yeah, for sure. Do you need to be monitoring your child’s heart rate if they are healthy and have been released from the hospital? No. 

And you know, I put a little anecdote in the book too. I spoke to a woman who had a very, very premature baby, where she was in the NICU for months, and the nurses were around the clock, monitoring her kid. And then one day, they were like, “Oh, she’s fine, she can go home.” My friend was like, “Wait a second, I have had around-the-clock professional care.”—the child’s heart would stop occasionally, and they would pat her back into breathing. I mean, like really, really tough things to be looking at and handling—And she said, “Various pieces of technology really gave me a lot of calm.” So, I can see that there are cases where the need is filled by tech and can be wonderful. But I think for the vast majority of our very anxious parent cohort, it just kind of amps up the anxiety often.

SEAN SPEER: One of the ways in which parents use technology is to overcome tantrums, lack of sleep, or whatever else. You counsel that parents ought to understand that what you call the “friction of parenting” is actually beneficial to parents and children and we shouldn’t always try to manage it with technology. 

What do you mean, Sophie? Why is it, in effect, good to go through those experiences as opposed to trying to minimize them with technology?

SOPHIE BRICKMAN: I think my answer, frankly, would have been a lot different before we had our third child and before the middle one stopped sleeping through the night and the older one kept coming into our bed and when nobody has slept in this house for months. So yes, we bring out the iPad more than I would have as a saintly mother of one who was writing this book and sitting on her soapbox.

I think the point is that a lot of this technology, whether or not it’s putting your kid in front of a screen so you can do something else, which is very needed, or it’s crunching data or gathering information that you find online or through various parents groups, a lot of it purports to take away any of the effort that goes into parenting. Often, the hard parts of parenting are sitting by your two-year-old’s bed when she won’t go to sleep or won’t stay asleep at five in the morning. The easier thing to do is to give her an iPad. I’ve done that before and it’s okay and she won’t be scarred forever. But I think if you operate under the assumption that you should try to be hacking various moments of parenting and the gritty parts of parenting that take a lot of effort, that’s not the right kind of mindset to be going into this kind of amazing adventure with your child and your family,

SEAN SPEER: I should just say in parentheses, Sophie, that resonates a lot for me, even if I can see that at times I turned to Cocomelon and other things like that more than I ought to.

Another idea in the book that struck me was the way you talked about our experience as parents compared to our own parents when it comes to how easy and mindless it is to buy stuff online. It seems like our son has more stuff arriving from Amazon than we do.

Do you want to talk a bit about that? What has been the consequence of the ubiquity of online shopping? How has it changed the experience of parenting, for better or for worse?

SOPHIE BRICKMAN: I mean, my household would crumble without Amazon and without e-commerce. I would be spending my time running from place to place to get diapers and this and that and the other thing. I talk at length in that chapter about e-commerce about this difference between maximizers and satisficers, which is sort of this word that was coined that means settling for good enough. 

Maximizers are inherently people who just want to find the absolute best thing, the best pair of jeans, the best bottle, whatever. And the minute you go on Amazon, you type in “water bottle for your kid”, and it’s like, do you want the straw? Do you want the spout? Do you want the one that he can hold and then it graduates from the sippy cup to the actual thing? It becomes very overwhelming. I think putting parameters on that and really understanding that it’s okay to just get your kids something that does the job and it doesn’t have to be the perfect thing. 

You know, I found this with diapers. It’s like, do you want the most organic thing? Or do you want a cloth diaper? Do you want to this? And it’s like, I don’t know, just make a decision and stick with it, because you have enough stuff going on in your mind already and you shouldn’t be wasting your time with it. So, try to use it to your advantage.

SEAN SPEER: As I was preparing for our conversation, I heard you say in another interview a phrase that stuck with me. You said, quote, “kids will find the magic.” What did you mean by that? And how, in a good way, is it a distillation of your book?

SOPHIE BRICKMAN: I mean, I assume that that was sort of in response to a question about play. A lot of the book focused on play. When I wrote the proposal, I was like, “I’ll just have one chapter on play.” But it’s like the whole world of a child’s life is play, so whether it’s playing on a screen, whether it’s playing with blocks or imagination, it’s all playing. It’s very, very important for kids to play. I spent a lot of time speaking to developmental psychologists about really what is good for children at these very young ages, under the age of four. Boredom is wonderful for children. Technology does not let you be bored. That’s not the purpose of technology, as any of us knows when our phones ding and we have some sort of release of serotonin and we can’t wait to go look at it. 

So, in terms of kids finding the magic, the idea is that if you just sit back for a little bit and if your kid is about to have a tantrum, or if your kid looks a little bit bored, just try to let them sit in that for a little bit. Often magic will come out of that. What you should know is that in helping them sit in this sort of slightly uncomfortable position where there isn’t input screaming at them all the time, they are actually growing in the best way that they can and that you are really being the best parent for them. Which I think is what all of this is about. Everybody wants to be the best parent they can be, and if they think that various technologies can help them, they’ll go for it. But in fact, if you can kind of pull back a little bit, and there are absolutely exceptions to this, by and large kids will make the magic and the fun for themselves in the world. They don’t need that much extra.

SEAN SPEER: I don’t know what it’s like in your household Sophie, but we’ve been receiving, since our son was born, these boxes from Love Actually, you’re probably familiar with them—

SOPHIE BRICKMAN: Lovevery! Love Actually is the movie. 

SEAN SPEER: Yes, pardon me. I misspoke. But at this point, I think he has more fun with the boxes than he does with the products in the boxes. As you say, he’s effectively found the magic in simple things.

SOPHIE BRICKMAN: Absolutely. I mean, another point about that—I’m not sure specifically about that brand—but there is a lot of these sort of toy or play-based companies subscription services that will send you toys and things that are developmentally appropriate for a given age. So, they’re gonna get little novelty balls at this age and they’re gonna get the car that goes on the track at this age, and balls that go into whatever it is, puzzles. And one of the most fascinating lines in my research was kind of understanding different philosophies of play. There is one philosophy of play called RIE, resources for infant educarers, and it’s a very old philosophy that has a fascinating history. 

But I spoke to the former president of it, who said, “You know, kids will make the toy developmentally appropriate for them at that age,” so you don’t need to be giving it to them. They haven’t like graduated when they’re eight months and they turn nine months and now they can do this thing. If you give them a ball and some water and a bowl, they will do very different things with it at different ages. It’s just sort of how kids are primed to learn and how they’re primed to play. So, I think the anxiety that various parents have that their kid is falling behind, or they’re not reaching this stage or that milestone, is furthered often by this idea that certain toys are for certain ages. It’s like the same toy can be played with for many, many years in different ways.

SEAN SPEER: Some of these technologies purport to have educational purposes. Others don’t; they’re purely for entertainment. You write in the book, though, that even some of the educational products can blur the line with entertainment. Do you want to talk a bit about this? How should parents think about that line between education and entertainment?

SOPHIE BRICKMAN: As you said about your son, he gets various toys and boxes and what he wants to do is get in the box and turn it into a spaceship or a car, or a fort, or whatever he’s doing at this age. I think that this idea of education is a very American idea that is very academic. So, you want your kids to be learning numbers, and colours, and shapes, and all of these things that are good for them to know. But I don’t know that many six-year-olds who don’t know what red is. So, I think that this idea that you can educate your child in a very specific way is not exactly grounded all the time in science. 

Developmental psychologists, like I said before, like the best thing for kids to do is free play, read as much as you can do your kids with print books—you can never read too much to your child. But have them run around outside, have them muck around, there’s tactile stuff and there are fine motor skills, there are gross motor skills. That’s all really good for this young age. I think the issue is that, particularly when you get into the world of apps and various programming, they have this stamp of approval that says “educational”.

If you go into the App Store, and there is four and under educational free content. What is that? You think, “Okay, so I’m going to do the thing I shouldn’t do and put my kid in front of the screen, but it’s going to be educational, so it’s okay.” Some of them are okay, but lots of them, that is a really meaningless title, particularly for very young kids. What you want to be looking for—and I want to be clear that this book is not anti-tech at all, it’s very much kind of a quest to figure out how to get the best technology in front of my kids and how to use it in a way that would make me a better parent and a calmer parent. There are absolutely wonderful programs that I love to watch with my kid. There are great apps out there, you just have to do the work and sort of look for various indicators. You shouldn’t just trust what the App Store says, I guess.

SEAN SPEER: Let me pick up your point about reading. As you say, Sophie, the book emphasizes the value and benefits of reading. How does technology affect reading? Is it an impediment or can it help? 

SOPHIE BRICKMAN: Well I mean, there are a few ways to answer that. One is that in this section that I researched about reading, I was focused on ebooks because those are very fun additions to the library. There can be wonderful benefits to ebooks, particularly in book impoverished places, you can still get a tablet and you can get access to lots of children’s books. But there’s a lot of stuff that happens on screen that’s in addition to the story and can distract the child from learning how to read and getting all the benefits that you would get if you just sit with a big boring analog book in your lap. I think that’s one answer. 

The other is that there’s a question of attention span. Kids at this very young age don’t have regulation. They’re still learning how the world works. So, if you are putting very high, fast-paced imagery in front of them—there was an experiment that they came up with this term called the Goldilocks effect, where a doctor who I spoke to at Cincinnati Children’s Hospital put young, young kids through MRI. It was one of the first studies to do this, trying to figure out if the kid’s retention of a given story was best if it was read in a print book, if it was just oral (so just said without any pictures), or animated. And what he found was that just oral was too cold. It was too hard for a young kid to understand what a pigeon looks like when the pigeon drives a bus. You need those pictures so that the kid can put the stuff together. He found that animation was too hot. It was like when, I’m making this up, but like when the pigeon went across the screen, it was like they were focusing on that and they weren’t exactly focusing on the comprehension. And the absolute perfect, just right, was a book with pictures. You really can’t beat that for kids that are between the ages of zero and four or five.

SEAN SPEER: We, I should just say, we read the pigeon books here. I think our favourite is The Pigeon Finds a Hot Dog.

SOPHIE BRICKMAN: I love that one.

SEAN SPEER: Do you want to talk a bit, Sophie, about how the book has affected your own parenting? I mentioned in the introduction that it’s a combination of a deep dive into the research, which is really comprehensive, but also a bit of a story about your own experience. Do you want to just reflect on how the two essentially come together?

SOPHIE BRICKMAN: Yeah, I mean, I think to underscore the point I said before, where this isn’t like anti-tech—I can’t be anti-tech because I have three children and I live in New York City. So, I’m not gonna send my kids out on the farm to play and muck around in the hay. Like, I can’t do that. And I work and my husband works, and we need breaks. There are ways now that I use technology where it’s more informed. One big takeaway for me was that it’s not exactly, with a few exceptions, it’s not exactly what you’re watching with your kids, it’s how you’re watching it. If you watch something with your child, and you enjoy it, and you guys can laugh about it, you can talk about it later, you can put the music on, whatever it is, that’s wildly more beneficial for your kid and more enjoyable for you than if you just stick them in front of something that like you hate the sound of the music or whatever it is that is going on. Which is just like, so many parents are like, “Oh, God, I have to put on X because he loves it.” It’s like, “Well, you don’t. Put on something else.” 

I think, for sure, there are good programs and good apps that you can put the kids in front of solo after a certain age, and it’s been shown to be the same as running around in the woods with them and not the same as reading them, but like I can’t do that all the time. So, I think it’s given me kind of real practical takeaways of how I can use technology to my benefit and to my kids’ benefit and not feel as guilty about it. There’s such a kind of guilt and shaming culture when it comes to parenting that you’re doing it wrong, or you’re not good enough, or you’re not optimizing this moment the right way. That’s all frankly, bullshit. Like everyone’s doing their best, and I think what I wanted to do is just get through the science so that I can understand what was happening to my kid’s brain, try to like really be thoughtful about why I was using the technology, and then drill down on what technology would be wonderful to use in my house.

SEAN SPEER: You referred to the science, and I mentioned earlier, just how comprehensive your research is in the book. Is there something that surprised you the most in undertaking the research, Sophie? Is there something that jumped out at you and has, in effect, changed the way you think about these issues with your own children? 

SOPHIE BRICKMAN: There is a section in the book, I’m forgetting exactly where it was, but I interviewed a really, really wonderful educator and professor named Walter Gilliam, who’s at Yale, and he does a lot of work in China. What he said to me is he was, “We Americans, like we fund a lot of research into early childhood development, and for years and years and years, we’ve seen that like open-ended play, free play, not drilling kids on academics, all of that stuff is really, really important for young kids and kind of the best way to set them up for success in the future.” He said, “In China, they’re not funding this research, but they’re taking the research and implementing it.” 

In China, where you would imagine is this sort of, you know, you hear about these testing academies, you hear about when the kids get older that it’s very, very rigorous and very academic and very cutthroat, and there’s a lot of anxiety about it. They start off, mandated by state, that their preschools be full of open-ended play. There’s very little technology, the kids are not drilled in an academic way. And he said, “You know, we do all this research, but we don’t implement it in schools. We cut recess. We’re optimizing for academics at a very young age.” As he said, “That’s not really the way to go.” And that surprised me because I had a misunderstanding about how Chinese kids were raised.

SEAN SPEER: That’s fascinating. At the risk of boring you and some of our listeners, back in 1972, when Canada first played the Soviets in hockey and Canada saw itself as the globally dominant hockey nation, the Soviets almost beat us. One of the things that we discovered after the fact was the way that we trained and practiced was systematized and kind of regimented, and the Soviets by contrast permitted, especially young players, to be creative and play around with the puck as opposed to thinking in terms of a systematic way to play hockey. And I think in a lot of ways those insights have since been reflected in the way that youth hockey is organized and played in Canada. So, it’s a bit of a tortured analogy, but an interesting insight for sure. 

You mentioned earlier in the conversation that part of your context as a parent is that you are raising children in a big city. In fact, you grew up in New York and now you’re raising your children here. Do you want to talk a bit about what it’s like to raise a family in the city? What are the pros and cons, from your point of view?

SOPHIE BRICKMAN: I mean, how much time do you have? It’s what I know because I grew up here. I live eight blocks from my parents. I have this wonderful and very unusual situation where we do kind of have a village, and the kids are over there every weekend, and that’s wonderful.

I think, the benefits of the city—I mean, we could talk about the education system here, we can talk about a million things. But I think in terms of the benefits of what the city has to offer, we’re trying our best to take advantage of them and failing, obviously. It’s like, we don’t go to the Met every weekend and take the kids to see music or whatever, we’re just bumbling through as best as we can. 

But to bring it back to the book, one of the reviewers kind of got me on this and said, “You know, like, there’s the obligatory section about Scandinavia, as there always is in all of these kid’s books.” It’s like Scandinavia is this hallowed, amazing place that has a halo around it. But it’s kind of true. They have these forest schools and the kids run around in the forest and they play and they’re not academically pushed until they’re seven. They don’t learn to read until they’re seven. It’s much calmer seeming from afar. I don’t have the benefit of being able to partake in that, but we have the benefit of being near all sorts of things that we don’t take advantage of, I guess, I don’t know.

SEAN SPEER: Well, this has been a fascinating conversation about a fascinating book: Baby Unplugged: One Mother’s  Search for Balance, Reason, and Sanity in the Digital Age. Sophie Brickman thanks for joining us at Hub Dialogues.

SOPHIE BRICKMAN: It’s been a pleasure. Thank you so much.