How to Raise Responsible Digital Kids
Dr. Yalda T. Uhls is helping parents navigate the challenges that come with raising a connected kid.
Dr. Yalda T. Uhls, a former exec at MGM and Sony, left the movie world to study the media’s effect on child development, earning a PhD in Psychology at UCLA. Uhls is now an adjunct professor at UCLA, a part-time adviser at Common Sense Media, an educational consultant on Dot — an animated series from Randi Zuckerberg and The Jim Henson Co. — and the author of Media Moms & Digital Dads. PCMag spoke to Dr. Uhls after she gave a speech to parents at a private elementary school in the San Fernando Valley on raising responsible digital kids.
PCMag: So, you just soothed more than 50 parents who are terrified about what their kids are getting up to online?
Dr. Uhls: [Laughs] I hope so. I started giving these talks in 2010, and what I really try to do is provide context for an informed discussion, as well as practical tools. So I start by taking them back to the end of the 19th Century, when parents were freaking out about books and the influence they had on their children. It’s all about control.
Many cultures have banned and burned books as dangerous over the years; the plot of Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451, of course.
Exactly. It’s the same principle. Control and authoritarianism. But that just doesn’t work as a parenting tactic, even in the digital world.
So what do you suggest parents do in the face of 24/7 access via social networks and omnipresent screens?
All the child development research suggests that the most effective parenting style is ‘authoritative.’ That is, loving and warm, but firm with rules. When I speak to parent audiences, I recommend that they engage in active media mediation.
Is that using Internet filters and carving out allowable screen time?
It’s more about having structure and being positive and proactive. Filters often cause children to find a way around them and can therefore lead to the most risky behavior, especially as they become teenagers.
And lead to burgeoning hacking skills before high school starts.
So do you set out guidelines such as the best age to give your tween a smartphone?
I don’t do that, because I don’t want parents to be judged on their decisions. Each family is different, and parents know their kids best.
But in your research, what’s the average age?
The national average is somewhere between 10–12.
A question you must get a lot is, ‘What do I do when my child uses a search engine and stumbles on porn?’
That’s usually the first question whenever I speak at schools. It comes down to parenting style again. Your children have to feel comfortable coming to you with this information and know you’re not going to freak out, or shame them. You need to sit them down, ask them how they feel about what they just saw, talk to them, and also help them to learn better searching skills.
Because if they don’t go to their parents with questionable content, they’ll have no context for what they just saw?
And if they don’t feel comfortable telling their parents, then the only way parents are going to know is if they comb through their child’s browser history.
You gave a speech at the Google L.A. campus, talking about your book, Media Moms & Digital Dads, in which you highlight the importance of developing ‘digital and media literacy’ within the family.
It’s known as ‘21st century readiness,’ and the Obama administration was particularly key in emphasizing this in the school curriculum. It’s important for kids to learn how to search safely, source accurate information — in the face of fake news — and develop critical thinking.
You’re also known for highlighting the positive child-developmental aspects of video games. Can you provide some examples?
There’s a lot of research on video games and cognition. We now know that absorbing and retaining information in 2D, via the screen, while playing a game, especially those that have a strong element of spatial rotation, can translate to using this ability in the real world. One anecdotal example is my son, who is 14, and plays a lot of games on Steam. When we were in Belize, he asked me if he could drive a golf cart. I agreed, and he drove it perfectly, most likely because he’s played a lot of driving games online. The skills transferred.
And you have shared some research findings about gender, which was heartening to say the least.
Child development research has found that, on average, girls have a lower understanding of spatial rotation — which is an important underlying skill for math and engineering — than boys of the same age. However, several studies demonstrated that when a girl plays certain kinds of video games on a regular basis, her ability to mentally rotate objects improves dramatically, nearly on par with boys.
As an academic who used to be a Hollywood studio executive, you’ve now carved out a niche back in entertainment. Can you tell us about working on Dot with Randi Zuckerberg?
Through my former career I knew many execs at The Jim Henson Company. So when they partnered with Randi Zuckerberg to make Dot, they brought me on board. I give notes on scripts to help them promote positive digital citizenship and create content that is appropriate for the audience’s developmental stage.
Dot is one of the few shows currently on air that has a central child character who has a healthy relationship with technology.
Which is why I’m so proud to contribute to it. The show embeds important lessons about being responsible with technology without feeling preachy. Honestly, I went into the film business originally because I believed movies could change the world. As an academic I’ve learned about and conducted research, both negative and positive, on media and stories. I’m hoping to elevate the value of this kind of research within the entertainment industry. I’d like to help content creators who write for children and adolescents to understand the latest child development research and to use it to craft stories for maximum prosocial learning. Entertainment and digital executives want to do the right thing, and I want to make it easy for them.
Read more: “Google Toontastic Offers Kids a 3D Playground”
Originally published at //www.pcmag.com/news/351706/how-to-raise-responsible-digital-kids.