Parenting in the Digital Age: Q&A with Yalda Uhls

About this Q&A Interview

We are proud to secure an exclusive interview with Yalda T. Uhls, MBA, PhD -- a child psychologist researcher and leading expert in how media affects children. She is a former Psychology in Action president and our most prolific blogger. Yalda continues to research with UCLA while serving as as director of Creative Community Partnerships at Common Sense Media, a national non-profit.

Most importantly, Yalda is a mom of two digital teens (a boy and a girl), which is also the topic of her new book: "Media Moms & Digital Dads: A Fact Not Fear Approach to Parenting in the Digital Age."  This book is so well-anticipated, its has been sold out at least twice since it has become available for pre-ordering in mid October.

Common concerns about the digital age

Joey: Thank you, Yalda, for agreeing to this interview despite of your busy schedule as your book is about to launch!

As a cognitive psychologist, I am often asked questions that is far from my speciality. One of the most common subjects is on technology and what it does to the mind, especially in children and young people. One of the most frequent complaints is that relying on technology makes people "less smart" (more often replaced with a variety of colourful words).

I grew up in the generation that used a rotary phone (the nostalgia of that beautiful tactile experience!), and can still recall the day her father joyously brought home one of these, ...

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... but I do feel the many benefits of new tech. It has broadened the resources and sped up research (both academic and personal) in formerly unimaginable ways (e.g., I can now access essays by theologians and researchers long dead despite my allergy to mould! No nostalgia for the rashes and sneezes...).

However, the fears are very real. As a friend of many parents, I can sympathise with the concerns that arise when observing children interact with "the screens": the disconcerting far off looks that are often interpreted as "no body's home" than "computing, computing, computing"; the fights that some parents must undergo to retrieve the device; and the reinforcement mechanisms utilised are often quite literally mind-manipulation (which as a learning and memory researcher, I confess, so are all good pedagogical methods).

Therefore, I am very glad to hear about your book as a way to advice family and friends about safe tech use for their children.

Questions and Answers

Screen-Time

Question (from a parent): What would you recommend to be the maximum percentage of free time children should spend "on screen"?

I understand that in this time and age, it is important that they are familiar and comfortable with computers and other digital devices. However, I am worried that media, internet, etc takes time away from other valuable pursuits known to improves children's health, development, and intellect in previous centuries (such as reading, playing with toys, playing with friends, being physically active, creating/building with their own hands and physical materials, observing life and others, etc.).

Yalda:The key is to maintain balance, variety, and content, rather than controlling duration.

It's completely natural to worry given all of the time kids spend on their devices and looking at screens. Rather than stress about a specific amount of time and percentage, however, I recommend that parents focus on balance and content choices. If a child is spending time being physical (and remember many schools require PE and also many kids do sports so they are much more active than we may think) and doing other activities (such as music, theatre, yearbook etc.), then letting them use media and technology for part of the day is fine, and in fact, can serve many developmental needs such as maintaining friendships and exercising various cognitive skills.

The American Academy of Pediatrics just announced new guidelines will be published and in their advice for families they said that the quality of the content is more important than the platform or time spent with media. They relied on the work of researchers in the field. Hopefully this message will get across to more parents so they can focus on the high quality content out there and use resources like Common Sense Media to check and make sure that what their child wants to watch, play, or read is developmentally appropriate.

Content Control

Question (from a parent): I feel much digital content available today would be harmful for children's psychological and moral development. Can you please advise on how to maximise the effectiveness of parental control softwares?

Yalda: Be sure to teach children critical thinking and safe behaviors.

I don't recommend parental control softwares as it is nearly impossible to stay on top of every device that a child is going to use and it's more important to teach them to independently think about what they are doing with media. Research actually points to some filters backfiring and being linked to more online risky behaviors as kids get older. Media and digital literacy, when taught in schools, can help your child learn to be critical about the content and learn safe behaviors.

Gender Differences

Tawny: How is the internet and social media use different between girls and boys?

Yalda: : The Pew Research Center just came out with some excellent data on this. They have been surveying children's internet use for a long time and they found that gender differences in usage are alive and well even on the internet and social media. Girls tend to use social media more, while boys use video gaming, both in the service of peer relationships. Video games today often are social for boys, and they can talk to each other online while playing. This is all developmentally normal. I have a great figure in the book that was published on PLOS that really shows the gender differences in how kids talk on social media. This review of my book points out some of the findings from that study. They won't be too surprising to most, as even online, where we are free to be whomever we want to be, gender norms exist.

Teenagers before "the screens"

Tawny: Was there an equivalent to the "digital age" or a special niche that occupied the teens' time in previous generations?

Yalda: : Yes, absolutely, romantic novels were the thing that parents worried about in the late 1800s, then of course the radio, television, the books. In Plato's time people worried about the written word!

Motivation behind Yalda's work and book

Tawny: What initially inspired you to write this book and pursue this line of research?

Yalda: : I speak to parent groups all of the time, and I find that they are terrified of the digital world. As I was studying for my dissertation, I realized there is a disconnect between the research and what parents are worried about. Most research finds that media and technology are not ruining childhood and that kids are adapting just fine. That doesn't mean we shouldn't teach our kids balance and appropriate behavior (online and offline) but it does mean that excessive worry is not useful for most parents (and their kids). I wanted parents to have a balanced resource they could turn to with practical advice and that explains the science behind what's going on.

When I am on the road speaking to parents, I say there are 3 kinds of parents -- the stick their head in the sand parent who hopes it will all go away and doesn't help their kids manage their digital lives, the drone parent (the next stage from a helicopter parent) who manages every moment of their child's digital life and allows no independent learning, and finally the Media Mom & Digital Dad, the kind of parent we advocate for -- someone who is engaged and active but not overbearing in their child's digital life.

The effects of the digital age

Tawny: How has the digital age affected social cognitive and socio-affective development? To break that question down a little bit, how has it affected they way children and adolescents interact with their peers and reason about other people's thoughts.

Yalda: : This is a big question, and I am going to reply in the way us scientists always end their journal papers, "more research needed!" I hope the graduate students at UCLA will continue to be interested in this topic and incorporate the many ways that media and technology connects with child and adolescent behavior and health outcomes.

Concluding remarks

Media Moms & Digital Dads
Media Moms & Digital Dads

Joey: Thank you so much, Yalda, for your time and for giving us an exclusive after all that you have already done (and continuing to do!) for Psych in Action. Thank you, Tawny, for your wonderful questions!

To our readers:

Yalda's new and practical book will be released in October 27, and the it is available in paperback and digital (obviously!) form on Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and independent bookstores.

To learn more about Yalda's work, visit her website.

Please leave your questions in the comment section below, and we will try to chase Yalda down for more answers!