Facts Not Fear: The Truth About Digital Media and Young People

Parents who are scared, who set too many limits and are always negative can create issues for their children. Some studies indicate that these parents end up having the children with the most risky online behavior.” – Yalda Uhls

In a world in which the media is quick to stoke the fires of parental fears about technology and its potentially corrosive impact on their children, Yalda Uhls offers a refreshing – and reassuring – perspective. Her book, Media Moms & Digital Dads: A Fact-Not-Fear Approach to Parenting in the Digital Age, is notable in that it tackles the topics that are of concern to many parents and educators with research findings. The author brings an interesting perspective to her work: she is a mother, an educator, a media specialist, and a research scientist at UCLA.

Uhls’ work offers worthwhile insights that can help us all to navigate the sometimes challenging, digital landscape. As a school principal, I periodically hear about very genuine “tech fears” that are broadly expressed as follows: the internet is a dangerous place for young people that is damaging concentration, literacy, the quality of reading and note-taking, our memories and our relationships.

Those who express such concerns do so from a place of sincere care. Such questions need to be asked openly and addressed thoughtfully. Unfortunately, many of these fears are compounded by alarmist media reports. Quite often, this is why parents are scared. A typical example is a report by Sreedhar Potarazu published by CNN. Under the title, “Is Social Media Ruining Our Kids?”, the author cites a disturbing set of statistics in complete isolation from any related research on digital media, framing the disturbing title to establish an unfounded connection between cause and effect:

“The 2014 National College Health Assessment, a survey of nearly 80,000 college students throughout the United States, found that 54% of students reported experiencing overwhelming anxiety in the past 12 months and that 32.6% “felt so depressed that it was difficult to function” during the same period. The study also found that 6.4% had “intentionally, cut, burned, bruised or otherwise injured” themselves, that 8.1% had seriously considered suicide and that 1.3% had attempted suicide.”

There is no evident correlation between the selective, worrying findings of this survey as reported and the use of technology. This kind of reckless reporting and data manipulation contributes little of value to the necessary discourse around the use of technology among young people. The report also provides some very welcome findings that – if we are to follow the logic of the CNN report – we should also ascribe to the use of social media. These include:

  • Only 0.4% of college students do not wear a seatbelt in a car
  • Only 0.3% have had their studies impacted by a sexually transmitted disease
  • More than 71% do not smoke
  • 85% use a designated driver when drinking alcohol
  • 78% engage in moderate cardio activity regularly

Of course, data can be manipulated to tell any story we want it to tell. Perhaps a more pertinent question to ask is, why does the narrative about digital media and young people tend to focus so much on panic and fear? When I started teaching in the early 90’s I occasionally encountered the passing of notes between students. On more than one occasion, the content of the note included something typically adolescent and potentially hurtful about another member of the class. At no point did I blame the existence of paper for this phenomenon and I didn’t frown on the presence of pencils and pens in the school. The reality is that what happens online is what is happening offline and we need to focus on the behaviours, not the medium. Our concerns should be all about people, not the digital device. Writer, Danah Boyd is clear about why social media use is highlighted as the culprit and how this leads to an obfuscation of core realities:

“It’s made more visible. There is some awful stuff out there, but it frustrates me when a panic distracts us from the reality of what’s going on. One of my frustrations is that there are some massive mental health issues, and we want to blame the technology [that brings them to light] instead of actually dealing with mental health issues.”

Uhls bases her perspectives on actual research and real findings. She notes that there are some young people who can become absolutely addicted to digital devices, but this is a tiny minority. While she advocates for device-free time, she also assures us that we should not be alarmed about teen tech habits. Uhls is pragmatic and honest about the realities of the digital landscape, too. Multi-tasking is not something humans are naturally good at, the research has shown. It is the processing that occurs when people physically write things down that accounts for any difference in retention, not the device itself, studies reveal. While parents, she contends, still need to act like parents – setting clear guidelines, expectations, and parameters – the available research informs us of a view that is strikingly at odds with the bleak portrait that is worrying parents.

So, what does the research actually say?

  • “Our teens are not growing into brain-dead zombies or emotionally stunted sociopaths. After more than a decade of research by child psychologists… we have discovered that the kids are alright.”
  • “The reality is that we have little hard proof that this generation is any more distracted than we were.”
  • “The data indicates [that]. … In the digital age, we read more than ever before, and teens read more books than adults.”
  • “It makes no difference in memory, comprehension, nor critical thinking whether you read materials on screen or paper.”
  • Researchers asked … students to watch TED Talks and take notes on either their laptops or paper. When quizzed after the class on the basic facts of the video, both groups performed equally well.”
  • Texting will not hurt writing proficiency, and, in fact, may encourage literacy and creative writing.”
  • “Memory itself does not appear to be declining; instead, we shift what we memorize to take advantage of the capabilities of computers.”
  • Data … demonstrates that children are adapting and sometimes thriving as they embrace 21st-century media.”

This good news needs to be tempered, of course, with common sense. Young people need to maintain a healthy balance between online interaction and face-to-face activities (even here the research shows that the former is driven by the healthy need for the latter). Parents are obligated to develop and maintain open dialogue with their child around trust and transparency. Fear should not govern our instincts or hinder the need to empower our young people with the appropriate uses of digital media.

The true power of digital media lies in its potential to connect, communicate, and, therefore, to amplify or extend the reach or impact of a given experience. There are, sadly, documented instances where technology is clearly exacerbating certain societal issues. Increasing childhood obesity is among these concerns. There are tales of toddlers being given iPads as child-minding devices. Literacy is on the decline among the socially disadvantaged. Issues that are sometimes blamed on technology are often deeply-rooted in poor parenting, issues of self-esteem, and educational institutions with narrow conceptions of learning caused by a lack of funding or inflexible, external constraints. In the right context and culture, however, the research makes clear that digital media can positively impact and profoundly transform learning.

There is no need to be scared. We must empower, not control. Young people are adapting positively to the digital age and we need to trust in their ability to do so.

Zuckerberg, Randi. “Yalda T. Uhls Wants You to Approach the Digital Age with Facts, Not Fear.” Professional Women, April 28, 2016.
Potarazu, Sreedhar. “Is Social Media Ruining Our Kids?”. CNN, October 22, 2015.
Bergstein, Brian. “Parents: Don’t Panic About Your Kids Social Media Habits.” MIT Technology Review, December 12, 2013.
Uhls, Yalda. Media Moms & Digital Dads: A Fact-Not-Fear Approach to Parenting in the Digital Age. 2015.

Image credit @BryanMMathers via Visual Thinkery. Licenced under CC-BY-ND.