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Creating a Strong Foundation for Thriving in the Digital Era: The Power of Belonging and Connection

Updated: Aug 8, 2023

It's time for a heart-to-heart conversation about something that truly matters: the well-being of our young ones. Did you know that New Zealand has one of the highest rates of youth suicide worldwide? It's a concerning fact that almost 20% of young people in New Zealand will experience a significant mental health issue before they reach 18 years old (Mental Health Foundation, 2018). Even more alarming, Māori and Pacific Islander youth face unique challenges due to cultural and systemic barriers that restrict their access to the necessary support they need (Mental Health Foundation, 2018).

In today's world, where our attention is constantly diverted by mindless scrolling and gaming, it's crucial that we reconsider the ways in which our youth engage with the world. Immediate steps must be taken to ensure that all young people receive the support they require to not just survive but to truly thrive.

Two young males sitting on sofa looking at their mobile tablets.
Image: Adobe Photo Stock

The Power of Belonging and Connection

Today, I want to dive deep into the importance of belonging and connection in our lives, especially for our younger generations. In my previous blog, I shared my journey of growth and rediscovery of my Māoritanga (Māori culture) through connection. It made me realise how vital belonging and connection are for our happiness, mental health and well-being, and overall development.

Did you know that feeling like we belong directly affects our children's well-being?

Dr Stephen Porges' research on the polyvagal ladder and theory has shown a strong relationship between our nervous system, sense of belonging, and children's overall well-being. His research indicates that our nervous system oscillates between calm and stress, producing three primary states:

  1. rest-and-digest (social and safe)

  2. fight-or-flight (mobilisation)

  3. shutdown (immobilisation)

Deb Dana has condensed this research into a simple ladder demonstrating how we naturally transition through these states.

Image of the Autonomic Nervous System as a Ladder by Deb Dana
Image: Autonomic Nervous System Ladder, Deb Dana

One key insight I took from this is that to establish a connection, individuals would benefit most from playing our games in a state of Ventral Vagal Activation - feeling safe, social, engaged, and present. As my team and I started developing our product lines, we asked ourselves how do we improve our augmented reality games to encourage these positive states. The answer, create a sense of connection to the land. Use geolocation technologies within our augmented reality games to encourage individuals to move away from screens and indoor-based activities and venture outdoors.

If you’ve spent time with children who have grown up on their papa kāinga (homelands) or are deeply immersed in te ao Māori, you will witness the incredible impact their sense of connection and belonging to their whenua (land) has on their confidence, pride, and sense of self. These young ones, well-connected and with a deep sense of belonging, show remarkable resilience, emotional well-being, and social competence. Their secret? Supportive and inclusive environments where cultural traditions, values, and community connections are nurtured. Families and communities play a vital role in fostering belonging by providing cultural grounding, strong relationships, and opportunities for active participation and contribution.

Navigating Challenges in the Digital Age

Ah, the digital age—the land

of online games and the emerging metaverse. While these virtual platforms offer socialisation opportunities, they can lack the depth and authenticity of real-world interactions.

With their competitive nature and focus on individual achievements, online games unintentionally isolate children, prioritising virtual accomplishments over genuine

A young male sitting on sofa playing on a Nintendo Switch
Image: Young male playing a video-game.

connections. As a parent, I understand that playing traditional games can activate our dopamine pathways, which strive for gratification. This state of mind makes it challenging to transition back to the present, where hormones related to social connection take precedence. Spending too much time online can be addictive and limits opportunities for genuine in-person interactions. This can hinder the development of crucial social skills like being present, which may make it hard for children to differentiate between meaningful relationships and superficial ones.

Furthermore, mindfulness is a valuable skill that requires practice, yet it is not often promoted in video and mobile games. Practising mindfulness has been shown to reduce stress, improve mental and physical health, and increase overall happiness in life. It is important to prioritise this skill in our daily lives.

Guidance for Nurturing Genuine Connections

Renowned researchers Dr Gabor Mate and Dr Gordon Neufeld shed light on the importance of connection in the digital world. Their work explores how humans often turn to technology to seek connection instead of just information, as it serves as a means to maintain closeness even when physically apart. Our primary and dominant Need is togetherness. It is the connection we seek, not factual information about the world.

Human beings- often as adults, but especially as young adolescents- are hungry for information about the world and their attachment status. They want assurance that they belong to those who matter to them. They want to be seen as similar to those they value, that they are liked by them, and that they matter. We are driven to know whether or not we are invited into another's presence, and we present ourselves in the hope that this invitation will be forthcoming.

The technology may be new, but these dynamics are as old as humanity. Dr Mate and Dr Neufeld’s book, "Hold On to Your Kids, Why Parents Need to Matter More Than Peers", provides valuable guidance for parents seeking to support their children in forming genuine online and offline connections. What is clear from their research is that we don't have the luxury of simply following our children into the digital age. We need to take the lead, and one way to do that is to have open and honest conversations about how technology affects relationships and the importance of genuine connections. Encourage offline activities like sports, arts, volunteering, or community projects that promote social interaction. These activities can help young people step out of their comfort zones and engage with others in meaningful ways.

As parents and caregivers, we can lead by example. Let's prioritise and model healthy relationships in our own lives by demonstrating empathy, active listening, and genuine interest in others. By doing so, we set an example for our children on how to form and maintain meaningful connections.

Young polynesian male students looking at a mobile phone. Two female adults are watching them.
Image: Tamaki High School students at their Tuwhiri in Schools end-of-year Showcase

Fostering Belonging Through Innovative Technology

At ARA Journeys, we strive to improve health and wellness by combining traditional knowledge with modern technology. Our AR games offer young individuals exciting outdoor expeditions and immersive encounters that inspire curiosity, creativity and a deep bond with nature. We take great care in creating all our products, ensuring that every aspect is carefully considered. Our goal is to create spaces that promote wellness and foster connection to the world around us.

Connection is at the heart of everything we do. Our digital platforms and augmented reality games seamlessly blend technology, nature, and storytelling to encourage wonder, cultural appreciation, and connection. By incorporating indigenous wisdom and traditions into our games, we provide a safe environment for young people to connect with their cultural heritage and develop a sense of identity and belonging. In Te Ao Māori, connecting to the land involves using all our senses and working together as a collective, and we aim to reflect this in our products.


Belonging is the driving force behind personal growth, healthy relationships, and societal progress. As parents, caregivers, teachers, and community leaders, we have the power to actively support the development of belonging and connection in our young people's lives. Let's create welcoming, diverse, inclusive spaces where everyone feels valued. Encourage quality relationships over superficial connections, and guide the younger generation to seek genuine online and offline connections. Remember, it starts with open conversations, modelling healthy relationships, providing safe spaces for expression, embracing cultural identities, and promoting offline activities that foster social connections. Together, we can cultivate a sense of belonging and connection that empowers our young ones to navigate the digital age with grace and resilience.

PS: If you want a family-friendly outdoor activity, check out our educational augmented reality games, Tuwhiri and Ko Ngā Haerenga a Manu (Journeys of Manu).

Learn more about ARA Journeys.

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