“Media Moms and Digital Dads” author Yalda T. Uhls on choosing a facts-over-fear approach to kids using social media

By Will Theisen

Yalda T. Uhls draws from movie industry experience to understand new media

Yalda T. Uhls draws from movie industry experience to understand new media

When Yalda T. Uhls left her beloved Berkeley for Los Angeles, she had no idea how permanent that move would be.

“I got an MBA at UCLA then went into the film industry. You have to live here to do that. So I stayed and developed a career, got married and had a family,” she says.

Twenty years later, Uhls spends a lot of time looking at similarities between social media and movies. As a psychologist and expert on child development, she focuses her research on the way social media impacts children. Before becoming a published author whose research on social media frequently appears in The New York Times and The Huffington Post, Uhls’ years in Hollywood helped her understand why movies and entertainment get a bad rap with parents.

“Those industries are very similar in that they’re both run by young people and there’s not much diversity,” she says.

In her new book “Media Moms and Digital Dads,” Uhls suggests that parents take a “fact, not fear” approach to parenting in a world dominated by social media.

You have two “digital teens” — a boy and a girl. Which is more glued to their screen?

They both are, but my son is more glued. He is less social and very into video games.

How do they react to having a mom who studies this behavior?

I think they react well because it helps me understand the way to approach them. It also helps calm me down [about social media], because I know that a lot of what they do is normal, even though it feels strange to me because I didn’t grow up with it. It’s something they use to do the things that I did [as a kid], which is connect with friends, develop an identity, have fun and learn.

You say you offer a “fact not fear” approach. What are parents afraid of?

What are they not afraid of?! They’re afraid of cyberbullying, Internet predators, what happens when [kids] stare at screens and not at faces. They’re afraid of time wasted and inappropriate content. There’s just a billion different things. They’re afraid of what will happen if [their kids] use social media, but they’re also afraid of what will happen if they don’t use it and don’t learn those skills.

You’re saying that instead of just being afraid of those things, it’s better to understand them?

Exactly. The reality is, there are a lot of studies out there now that have looked at the way kids use this stuff, and most of that is not extremely negative. As a whole, most kids are doing all right.

How much responsibility should social media companies have in preventing cyberbullying?

They can’t prevent kids from being kids, and they can’t prevent human nature. At the same time, they can give parents a resource for dealing with some of these things. But parents need to step in and help their children navigate this stuff and understand how to have respectful communication. Schools need to teach digital citizenship. I think the kind of responsibility that a company could have would be perhaps creating a foundation or a charity that helps promote digital citizenship, and teaching children — or helping parents teach their children — how to navigate this stuff.

Are any of these companies actually doing that?

As far as I know, they’re not. … But some of these younger companies are still in startup mode — they’re probably not even thinking that way.

The problem with some of these younger companies is that they’re run by young people who don’t have children. They don’t really understand child development. They’re thinking of it through their lens, and they don’t understand some of the ways children can misuse these tools. And they don’t understand how parents will react.

I used to be a movie executive, at a company whose job it was to make media and money. I get that point of view, too. They’re thinking about creating products, but not how it could impact the child who uses it in a positive or negative way.

What should parents do if they feel social media has become a problem for their kids?

Before they’ve even let their child use social media, they should educate themselves about social media, be on social media and understand the platforms their children are on. They should “friend” them, observe them, and help them learn about the social norms and the way to communicate — what they can post and what they can’t post.

If there is a problem — cyberbullying, for example, one in four children report being cyberbullied, but only one in 10 report telling an adult. They’re worried a parent will make the situation worse, either by removing the technology or social media from their life, or shaming them by going and talking with people about it, which might come back to haunt them with their friends. So I think the best thing to do is to open a dialogue with your child. Don’t shut it down completely without understanding their point of view. Talk to them. Try to get them to start thinking about where the problem came from. Each problem is different, every kid is different, every social media is different.

Sounds like dialogue is key.

There are different kinds of parenting. One is you just let your kid do anything. That just doesn’t work. … And then you can over parent and not let them learn anything. The 21st-century version of the “helicopter parent” is the “drone parent,” hovering over them all of the time on media. That backfires, too, because kids end up going underground or rebelling. The best thing to do, which is just basic parenting, is to be warm, kind and loving but also set limits and rules.

Yalda T. Uhls discusses “Media Moms and Digital Dads” from 7 to 9 p.m. Monday, March 1, at Westside Neighborhood School, 5401 Beethoven St., Del Rey. Free with RSVP. Call (310) 574-8650 or email speakerseries@wnsk8.com.