Media Moms & Digital Dads, A Fact Not Fear Approach to Parenting in the Digital Age by Yalda T. Uhls
By 2010, children were spending more time with electronic devices than with their parents or in school. Is digital access destroying childhood? Child psychologist Yalda T. Uhls urges parents not to worry. Calling on multiple and varied studies, including her own, she discusses the mostly positive research on children and media use, and she helps parents understand and manage the media habits of their children, from toddlers to teenagers. She explains how families should take an active role in setting their media consumption and includes research on how children and teenagers learn through digital means. getAbstract recommends her thoughtful, encouraging conclusions to parents, educators, policy makers and anyone in a digital business.
- Parents worry about how today’s digital environment affects their children and teenagers.
- Because infants learn best by interacting in person, children under the age of two should have extremely limited media time or none at all.
- Children learn by observation and model the behavior they see.
- Children under the age of three have a “video deficit” and cannot tell the difference between two-dimensional screen-based media and three-dimensional real life.
- Parents should monitor their family media use.
- Set aside daily device-free time for your kids.
- Decide if and when you will allow your child to own a cellphone, join social media and use email.
- Many teenagers communicate through social media and texting. Unlike adults, youngsters don’t see these activities as different from interacting face-to-face.
- “Media multitasking” distracts your attention and worsens your performance.
- Playing video games offers several benefits, including improving spatial skills.
Media Moms & Digital Dads Book Summary
Parenting in the Digital Era
The cellphone is “the most rapidly adopted consumer technology in the history of the world.” From 2005 to 2013, the global pace of mobile phone subscriptions outstripped population growth. In 2013, the United States reported an average of six web-connected devices per household – more than the number of people in each home.
“When we look at screens, we are less engaged with our social and emotional environment. Human interaction is critical.”
Social media are ubiquitous. Touch screen technology is so simple that even infants and toddlers can use it. From 2011 to 2013, kids younger than the age of eight doubled their use and ownership of mobile devices. By 2013, 78% of young children had used cellphones and tablets.
In 2012, researchers found that media consumption was lowest among families with children aged two to six, but they also discovered that parents didn’t monitor their kids’ content as frequently as parents of children aged seven to twelve. Elementary school students’ increased media use meant a decrease in time spent in other activities.
Parents should consider whether to allow electronic media in their kids’ bedrooms, whether they will prescreen or watch programs with their children, and whether they will allow (and how they will enforce) online viewing and email. Teens spend much more time on digital media than in other activities. Parents of teenagers should lay out rules for social media use that balance parental oversight with their kids’ desire for privacy and independence. Consider making those rules before your children start elementary school.
Digital Ground Rules
Parents should adopt some practical guidelines, such as:
- Consider how you use media. Children learn from what they see and model their parents’ behaviors.
- Set aside daily device-free time.
- Be positive. Don’t constantly criticize your children’s media use.
- “Live where they live.” Watch programs or play games together. Ask questions and discuss what you’re sharing. Join the same social networks.
- Relate what happens online to the real world. Discuss both positive and negative news stories with tweens and teens.
Infants and Toddlers
Parents should limit the amount of time infants and toddlers spend in front of screens. The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends that children younger than the age of two should not be exposed at all to electronic devices with screens.
“A screen is like a page in a book: Both can take you away from the social world, yet I doubt many people would blame reading for a child’s inability to understand emotional cues.”
In the early 1960s, Stanford psychologist Albert Bandura was the first to propose that children learn by watching others. Bandura conducted a groundbreaking experiment using large, inflatable “Bobo” dolls that bounced back after being knocked down. One group of three- to six-year-olds observed an adult punching, slapping and sitting on the toy, while a second group in another room watched an adult quietly playing with other toys and ignoring Bobo. After 10 minutes, the children went to a new room filled with different toys. Then they returned to the original rooms that had the Bobo dolls. Each group replicated the behavior it had earlier observed. Behaviorists had previously believed that rewards or punishments affected children’s choices, but Bandura’s research showed that simple observation guided their actions.
“As an infant’s brain makes the connection that human faces are critical stimuli, the child becomes ready to engage, interact and learn from other humans.”
Infants learn from clues in their visual field and practice “perceptual narrowing.” They focus on what matters to them and disregard everything else. Before the age of two, children can’t translate what they see on a screen to the real world. Scientists call this the “video deficit.” For example, children aged two and two-and-a-half watched a video of an adult hiding a toy. The two-year-olds couldn’t find the toy, but the two-and-a-half-year-olds could. In a second experiment, two-year-olds watched an adult hide the toy through a window – a real-life action. They all found the toy.
“Researchers found a strong relationship between…parents’ and kids’ use of media.”
Children younger than age three learn best by observing real life. When parents and their toddlers watch programs together, parents can point out what’s important and help their children develop social cues and language skills.
In 2007, Apple revolutionized the mobile phone market by introducing the first smartphone – a pocket-sized computer. In 2014, smartphones accounted for 88% of cellular sales growth. Babies and toddlers intuitively grasp how to use a tablet or a mobile phone. This proliferation of technology has come at a price. Because people spend so much time staring at screens, they miss out on the social and emotional signals that come from interacting face-to-face.
“The verbal acuity of kids who watched more TV was neither better nor worse than those who watched less.”
Child psychologist and author Yalda T. Uhls wanted to learn if screen-based media time hampers the development of emotional and social cues. She worked with two groups of sixth-graders from a California public school. One group attended a five-day sleepaway camp in science and leadership education at the Pali Institute, where they had no digital access – no cellphones, TVs, tablets or computers. The other group went to their classes at public school as usual.
“Too frequently, we focus on the children who ignore their parents because of technology while disregarding the fact that parents are setting the example.”
Researchers tested the youngsters at the beginning and the end of the five days on their ability to recognize fear, happiness, sadness or anger after viewing photographs of people’s faces experiencing those feelings. For the second test, researchers asked the kids to identify actors’ emotional reactions after watching videos of them doing normal kid activities. After five days, the camp children showed greater improvement on both tests than the school children. This suggests that media time doesn’t cause children long-term damage, which is good news, and also that time away from screens improves emotional understanding.
Mobile Phones for Children
Many parents want to know if, or when, they should get mobile phones for their children. This is a personal decision that will vary by family. According to the website Growing Wireless, children receive their first mobile phones at the age of 12, on average, and 56% of children aged eight to twelve have these phones. Many parents give their kids cellphones when they start middle school.
“Attention is limited and when we divide our attention between two activities, we automatically perform worse on one.”
Before deciding if your child should have a cellphone, consider if he or she is responsible enough to take care of it. Will you allow your child to have a regular mobile phone or a smartphone with Internet access? What kind of plan will you use? Will you allow electronic devices in your kids’ bedrooms? Sleep is crucial, especially for teenagers. Think about adopting and signing a family media-use contract that covers times and types of usage, so everyone follows the same rules. Then your kids won’t feel singled out or persecuted.
Facebook, Twitter, Snapchat, Instagram, YouTube and other social networks allow people to share their thoughts. Created in 2004, Facebook boasts more than 1.3 billion profiles, but teenagers’ most popular spots are Snapchat and Instagram. Scientists and researchers argue that the desire to belong is a fundamental human need. Social media feed the desire for human connections and the necessity to “self-disclose.” While adults see the virtual and real worlds as separate entities, teenagers don’t make that distinction. Teens view social media and texting as genuine communication with their friends.
“Taking away mobile phones and Internet access may sometimes be the right parenting choice, but it does not need to be the automatic default.”
Teenagers who use social media more frequently are also more social in real life. Popular celebrities hire people to manage their social media accounts, but teenagers must manage their own “brands.” Social media use amplifies peer pressure among teens and tweens. They try to keep up with what their friends are doing and can suffer the “fear of missing out” (FOMO). A survey of 13- to 18-year-olds found that girls “worry more about FOMO than fitting in.” Because adolescents are still developing their own sense of identity, their peers’ activities matter to them. Social media provide extrinsic rewards.
“Surveys of young people, even teens, find that they prefer to hang out with their friends in real life…rather than in the digital realm.”
Most social media networks bar users under the age of 13. However, 40% of tweens admit to lying about their age so they can sign up. Teenagers from the age of 13 use social media networks more than any other age group and have an average of 145 “friends”; Adolescents manage their online profiles to increase their popularity. The main topics teens discuss online – perhaps surprising to adults – are school and homework.
“By talking about the stupid things other people did online, along with the consequences, you are educating your child about the risks, but it won’t feel like lecturing.”
Before your child turns 13, decide how you will handle social media in your household. Make sure your teens connect with you online so you can actively participate in their digital activity. More positive interactions between parents and adolescents occur in the real world when they share the same virtual space.
Anything you or your teenagers post online will never go away. Help your adolescent understand the ramifications of inappropriate postings, pictures or videos. Explain that colleges and employers examine the online data of potential applicants and reject candidates based on their virtual activities. Among college admissions officers, 30% found information online that negatively affected candidates’ chances.
Age, personality, hormones and other factors affect attention span. Online distractions more seriously affect children who are easily distracted offline. People now multitask as never before. Kids in the United States often use several different screen-based media simultaneously. Youngsters aged 8 to 18 can spend 11 hours “media multitasking” every day. But there’s no such thing as multitasking; what you’re really doing is switching quickly from one task to another, and the more you take on, the worse your performance.
“Social media can be a good forum for practicing real-world skills such as learning to form groups, getting along with other people and networking.”
People claim that digital advances have led to a decrease in reading, but the opposite is true. Children and adults can choose to read on screens (with electronic readers) or on paper (the old-fashioned way). For teens and adults, there seems to be no difference in comprehension scores between reading on screens and reading on paper. Real books are best for children under the age of three.
“An inverse relationship exists between the sale of video games, which grew rapidly, and rates of violent juvenile crime, which decreased.”
Some parents don’t consider texting to be real writing because of the poor grammar and acronyms involved, but many teachers feel texting allows self-expression and creativity. Texting can improve reading scores and other literacy metrics.
Many people believe that video games have a negative impact on children’s reading and math abilities, attention spans, creativity, and social skills. But studies show that video games improve the spatial skills important in the fields of science, technology, engineering and math. Spatial skills improve with practice, which includes playing video games.
“Parents must teach children the importance of face-to-face time. Creating a home environment that reflects these basic and enduring human values is a crucial role of modern parents.”
Girls should play more video games, because they generally lag boys in developing those spatial skills. First-person shooter games help kids learn problem solving, creativity and flexibility – despite their often violent, graphic imagery.
Video games help kids process negative emotions and improve social abilities. Children play video games with others, physically or online. Therapists use video games in treating Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD), autism and anxiety.
Violence and Addiction
Video games have drawbacks, including violence and addiction. Every time an act of violence occurs in US schools, such as at Columbine and Newtown, experts discuss whether violent video games lead to aggression. But pinpointing aggression’s underlying causes is difficult.
If parents notice negative changes in their children’s behavior after they play violent video games, the adults should limit that use and seek qualified mental-health counseling.
About the Author
Yalda T. Uhls, PhD, is a regional director for the nonprofit organization Common Sense Media and a senior researcher at the Children’s Digital Media Center @ LA at the University of California at Los Angeles.