Meeri Kim: A recent experimental study you conducted has quite an interesting premise: What happens when children take a break from all screen-based media for five days? Tell me about how you came across this idea.
Yalda Uhls: I’m a mother, and the moment I decided to do this study was when I saw my tween daughter hanging out with her friends in a circle, all staring at their phones and not communicating with one another. I kept seeing that scene over and over again, and I wondered how the extensive use of text-based communication was affecting children’s ability to learn about the social world.
I designed and performed this study for my dissertation at UCLA in collaboration with Patricia Greenfield at the Children’s Digital Media Center, Los Angeles. We were lucky enough to find a camp where kids wouldn’t have access to any screen-based media whatsoever. The Pali Institute is an outdoor education overnight camp facility for kids grades 4 to 12 located 70 miles outside of Los Angeles, where electronic devices and screen-based media are not permitted. Its mission is to introduce experiential education to young people outside of classroom walls. For our study, fifty-one preteens from a public school in Southern California spent five days at Pali Institute. We were able to compare them to an age- and gender-matched control group from the same school who had not gone to the camp.
MK: Which skills did you test the children for before and after the “media diet”, and what were the overall results of the study?
YU: We looked at their ability to understand nonverbal emotional cues in pre- and post-tests that involved inferring emotional states from photos and videos with verbal cues removed. Although the scores of both groups improved, the scores of kids who visited the camp improved more. However, I imagine there would be a ceiling effect.
Sherry Turkle has mentioned this study quite a few times, and she says the study as a whole demonstrates resilience. Resilience as in, even if we lose a certain amount of understanding of non-verbal emotional cues through too little face-to-face conversation, we can bounce back from that loss. As far as we know it’s not something that is irreversible. We adapt to our environment quickly and when we take some time to socialize face to face, we learn important social cues.
“There is a lot of social learning that is acquired through using technology.”
Ultimately, the takeaway for me remains that device-free time is extremely important. Whenever I give parenting talks, I tell the audience to take some time during the day to teach your child to put down the device — and make sure the whole family does it, not just the child.
MK: Do you have any pointers for how much device-free time is appropriate for families? A few hours per day?
YU: For the entire family to do it together, I suggest that even as little as ten minutes per day is a good start. I don’t want to make it overwhelming for kids or parents, since we do use these devices for just about everything. The idea is more about teaching your child that a focus on face-to-face conversation time with people that matter to you is important, rather than a specific time frame.
As for what time during the day is best for device-free time, parents have to choose what works with their schedule. Dinner is obviously a great time, but some families use their phones to share photos or have conversations about something on the web. When I used to walk my kid to the bus stop, I would make it a point not to bring my phone. Find the places in your day where you can focus on each other, not the device.
MK: Much has been written and discussed about the evils of screen-based media for kids, from sexting to sleep deprivation. From a learning and development standpoint, what do you believe are some beneficial aspects of media use?
YU: Most of the fastest growing jobs today involve technology. Kids need to learn how to use this stuff because it’s going to be part of their jobs — not only for computer science or STEM careers, but really for any kind of career, for example, many businesses have a social media strategist. And there is social learning that is acquired through using technology: How do you communicate online? What’s an appropriate email to send? We take it for granted, but children have to learn how to communicate that way.
There are so many different skills — cognitive, social, and emotional — gleaned from media use. As researchers, we’re still learning about the differences in learning in person in the physical world versus the virtual world. So far, we’re realizing that for essential things like trust, intimacy, and true rapport — you learn these best through face-to-face interaction.
MK: You have a unique and non-traditional background, in that you spent fifteen years as a senior entertainment executive and producer in Hollywood. How does that real-world media experience translate into your research today?
YU: I have always loved stories, and so I went into the movie business because I believed stories could change the world. I was very proud of the movies that I developed. One of my very first films was called Mi Familia (My Family), a story about three different generations of Hispanic-Americans — I related to it, being a Persian-American. There are things that you learn through stories about other cultures, and it connects us as people.
Being a movie studio executive is a really high-pressure life, and I was lucky enough to be able to take a few years off with my kids. During this time, I became fascinated by how media impacts children. I transitioned into wanting to study this topic. I decided to go back to school at a late age, got my Ph.D., and parenting and my children informed my research.
Now I’m very interested in studying how kids learn from stories, and whether they are learning what we think they should be learning. A lot of times, storytellers create stories for children and teens thinking a certain message is coming across, but it’s not.
I’m also interested in educating the entertainment industry about the fascinating research that is in this space.
Yalda T. Uhls, PhD is a research scientist (UCLA) and non-profit executive (Common Sense Media) with over 15 years of senior executive experience in the entertainment industry (MGM, Sony). Her expertise of how media content is created, as well as the science of how media affects children, informs her unique perspective. She is also the author of Media Moms & Digital Dads: A Fact-Not-Fear Approach to Parenting in the Digital Age.
Uhls recently worked on Dot., which is a show based on a book that Randi Zuckerberg wrote and produced by The Jim Henson Company. It is airing on Sprout, and Common Sense Media gave the show A Family Seal, its highest honor. The character of Dot is that of a modern young girl. She, like many kids today, doesn’t separate her digital and real world, rather she uses technology to enhance and inform her play and learning in the physical world. It’s an attempt to accurately portray the world of children today while embedding digital citizenship and STE(A)M lessons within the storytelling so that parents and children can learn best practices. Uhls served as an educational advisor to help ensure that the digital citizenship lessons were highlighted whenever possible.