Academic Success Story: Yalda Uhls, M.B.A., Ph.D.

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I sometimes wonder whether Dr. Yalda Uhls is a descendant of King Midas, since everything she touches turns into (figurative) gold.

Dr. Uhls was a movie executive at MGM and Sony before we met during our first year of graduate school at UCLA in 2009. She has since published award-winning child psychology research and, most recently, a book titled, Media Moms & Digital Dads: A Fact-Not-Fear Approach to Parenting in the Digital Age, which was the #1 New Release in Popular Child Psychology on Amazon. Her book breaks down research on the complex issues surrounding the impact of technology on children in a friendly, accessible fashion.

Don’t take my word for Dr. Uhls’ expertise on how media affects children. Instead, check out her research featured on The New York Times and NPR.

Shirag: What are you currently up to?

Dr. Uhls: I am working for the national nonprofit, Common Sense Media.  I am also continuing to do research with Dr. Patricia Greenfield and the Children’s Digital Media Center@LA.  Finally, I am giving keynote talks for independent schools across the country on the topic of my new book.

Shirag: Why did you decide to attend UC Berkeley for undergrad?

Dr. Uhls: Well, even though I grew up in Berkeley, I attended a boarding school back East (Andover).  So, when I applied to colleges, I wanted to get back West and was fine returning to my home town since I had spent several years away from home in high school.

Shirag: What did you enjoy most about attending Berkeley?

Dr. Uhls: UC Berkeley has a really academic environment which I loved.  The students are smart, passionate and liberal.  That’s the kind of place I thrive in.

Shirag: What are the top 3 things students should consider in choosing an undergraduate institution?

Dr. Uhls: I’d start with the size of the school: Do you want a big environment or a more personal touch? Also, informal features of universities are really important. We all know how important a school is through their rankings, professors, etc., but students need to consider that they’re going to live there. So, do you want to attend a school that’s rural? Big school? Small school? Also, social environments matter. Different types of people go to different schools. For example, if you love intellectual, philosophical conversations, there’s a type of school you may most enjoy. On the other hand, if you like business and politics, you’d probably fit in best at another school. Each school has their own flavor.

Shirag: What led you to pursue developmental psychology at UCLA?

Dr. Uhls: To be honest, because I’m a mom and I wanted to study media with Patricia Greenfield. I’m very interested in how media intersects with child development, and UCLA was the best place for me to do that.

Shirag: I know you had a successful career as a movie executive at Sony and MGM before starting grad school. Why did you return to school?

Dr. Uhls: After spending many years working as a movie executive, it was no longer my passion; it didn’t satisfy my interests and intellectual curiosities. I’ve always been interested in psychology, but when I wanted to take intro psych at Berkeley, it was only being offered at 8AM on the other side of campus, and there’s no way I was going to enroll in that (laughs). As an adult, I was ready to fully study psychology. When I was working in the movies, I developed scripts exploring human behavior. Psychology is very similar because it studies why we behave the way we do.

Shirag: What advice do you have for individuals who want to pursue a Ph.D.?

Dr. Uhls: Take some time, before you commit, to get some work and life experience. Grad school is such a huge commitment. Before you start down that road and end up wondering why you did, spend a year or two working in a lab or exploring different arenas in your life to be sure you want to attend grad school. Going straight from undergrad doesn’t give you enough time to process what you really want to do in your career.

Shirag: I’m curious what pushed you to write Media Moms & Digital Dads: A Fact Not Fear Based Look at Parenting in the Digital Age?

Dr. Uhls: I wrote my dissertation on media effects and children. What was out there in the popular literature didn’t reflect what the research was saying about children’s media use, so I felt my book could add to the conversation. Also, I wanted to give parents a resource they could really use. Typically, when a book is research-based, it’s too academic and theoretical, and some parents are so busy that they just want to know the bottom line. Sure, some parents want to know where all the findings are coming from, but others just want takeaways. I speak a lot to parents who are really scared about their children’s access to media. The conversations on the topic are often negative and everyone is anxious; parents are scared when they don’t need to be.

Shirag: What exactly are parents scared of?

Dr. Uhls: Their kids being on social media and time spent looking at screens. A lot of it started when the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) recommended no screen time for children under 2. However, the AAP is now looking at the same research and relaxing its family recommendations, which fits well with what I’m communicating. Parents are also scared of selfies, phones, inappropriate content, technology in general, distraction, multitasking, and internet addiction. On the other hand, kids really love this stuff.

Shirag: Would you say parents’ fears are largely unfounded?

Dr. Uhls: They really are. Yes, there is a small minority of children who struggle with technology-related difficulties, but the vast majority is doing fine. Recommendations like “no screen time” seem to be made by clinical psychologists and pediatricians who usually see children when they have developed some type of problem. Therefore, their judgments and recommendations are based on patients, whereas developmental and social scientists are looking at the general population.. Also, many parents become concerned about their children’s media use around the time they hit puberty and start individuating. Since kids get their smart phones around the time they hit puberty when there is already increased conflict with their parents, the two mix.  Kids pull away from parents and towards their friends, and media facilitates that..

Shirag: It’s so important for practitioners to identify clinical cases as such and separate their recommendations for them from the ones they would offer the general population.

Dr. Uhls: I have always wondered why clinical portrayals are so dire. I think a lot of the negativity around children’s media came from people’s feelings, not a body of research. The good news is that we’re getting more research on this area. Plus, the first generation of kids who grew up with screens are becoming adults and we’re finding out that they’re generally well-adjusted like previous generations. The phone isn’t glued to their ears 24/7. In fact, I often see kids asking their parents to get off their phones.