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Student Well-Being

Is Tech Destroying Kids’ Social Skills? Here’s How Social-Emotional Learning Can Help

By Arianna Prothero — April 12, 2022 8 min read
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Technology’s effect on children’s social skills and well-being has caused a lot of hand-wringing over the years—and parents’ and educators’ concerns have only grown with the pandemic as students have done more socializing and learning on their digital devices.

Social media, virtual learning, online gaming, and ubiquitous devices present new social challenges for kids. So, what social-emotional skills do they need to flourish in an increasingly tech-centric world, and are schools teaching them?

Many schools are teaching key skills such as empathy, perspective-taking, and self-management, said Kelly Mendoza, the vice president of education programs at Common Sense Media, a nonprofit research and advocacy organization that also provides curricula and ratings on media and technology. However, the wrinkle is that educators are not always explicitly connecting those skills with tech use.

One reason could be that a lot of SEL curricula uses face-to-face examples in instructional materials and in exercises, said Mendoza.

“And I wonder if there is a generation gap and the adults teaching these skills don’t think of all of the challenges that kids face online or are even aware of them,” she said. “I’m sure they could make the SEL connections, but [these connections] may not be top of mind because adults are not participating online as much.”

But that disconnect, said Mendoza, means that students may not apply or adapt these all-critical social-emotional skills they are learning in school to their digital lives.

Their digital lives, too, are fused with their offline lives in a way that is foreign to many adults, said Michael Rich, a pediatrician and the director of the Digital Wellness Lab at Boston Children’s Hospital.

“This generation of young people live in an environment where they move seamlessly from the digital and physical world,” he said. Their teachers and parents, however, often see two worlds: one digital and one real.

How technology influences kids’ social-emotional development

It’s in this hybrid digital and analog world that kids are developing their identities, building relationships, learning to regulate their emotions and actions, and navigating an onslaught of false information. They are also spending a lot more time in the digital realm than they were before the pandemic, a recent survey by Common Sense Media found.

Kids are constantly performing for others on social media, and their identity development is highly subjected to others' feedback.

While the social-emotional skills students need to do well in school and the workplace are many of the same they need to be good digital citizens, technology presents new challenges.

Students need to be self-aware and able to manage their emotions, said Melissa Schlinger, the vice president of practice and programs at the Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning, or CASEL. There is a lot of emotional content on social media that goads kids (and adults) to click first and think later—commenting or sharing a video, meme, or story without evaluating its accuracy or the repercussions of their actions.

“One component of SEL is to make sure that we are slowing down, and managing those impulses, and understanding what we’re reading,” she said. “Is this something to share? Is it helpful? And that self-management piece is a key strength that we need in this digital space.”

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Teachers also need to coach kids to actively pay attention to how they are using media and technology and how it makes them feel, said Mendoza. Do they feel energized or lonely after playing video games? Do they feel confident or bad about themselves after scrolling through social media? Did they miss sleep, or a chance to interact with friends or family in person because of technology?

Maintaining supportive relationships and developing healthy identities can also be more challenging online. People often behave differently when interacting with screens instead of face-to-face, which can lead to cyberbullying and can carry over into in-person interactions.

“What we want to do is bring the personal piece back so that we can tap into our empathy,” said Schlinger. “So, remembering that there are people on the other side of this exchange and trying to focus on being empathic and imagining how different perspectives are reacting and different consequences are affecting different people.”

Building that capacity for empathy in the digital space is important for maintaining healthy relationships online, she said.

Social-emotional learning as it relates to tech shouldn’t focus on just the short-term consequences of hurt feelings or sharing disinformation. Another important skill for students: being able to game out the long-term consequences of actions and how what they say or share online today could derail a job application or scholarship award down the line or destroy a relationship.

This is true, also, for younger children as more of them join social media.

“Young children’s executive function is not developed enough to understand privacy,” said Rich, the pediatrician. “To them, privacy is mom and dad can’t see it. They don’t think about the rest of the world.”

Much of SEL focuses on identity development, said Mendoza, and how students develop healthy identities online should be a part of that exploration in the classroom.

“Kids are constantly performing for others on social media, and their identity development is highly subjected to others’ feedback,” said Mendoza. “Then there is a social comparison, that’s huge, where you’re scrolling and looking and everything is perfect or airbrushed, and kids struggle with this social comparison all of the time.”

While social media is certainly a dominant technology in children’s lives, it’s not the only one creating challenges for kids, families, and educators. There’s online gaming and also a rise in tech use for schoolwork. Families can struggle with the ubiquitous use of digital devices, said Mendoza.

“What I heard from some parents is that they felt like the school is sending this device home, and they felt like, well, it’s not my device, so they felt like they almost had less authority over it,” she said. “I think there is a struggle, and I don’t know what the solution is, around having kids do homework, which is all online nowadays, and then so much of their time is on screens already for their personal use, and it’s just a heck of a lot of screen time.”

How effective do you think technology can be when used to try to enhance students’ social and emotional skills?

There are a few broad ways schools can start being more conscious about teaching social-emotional skills for tech use.

To begin with, “schools can deliberately carve out time for these lessons around explicit skill building around SEL and digital citizenship,” said Nick Woolf, the social and emotional learning coordinator for the Burlington School District in Vermont.

However, as schools do this, educators should be aware that there has been rapid growth of online and app-based social-emotional learning programs during the pandemic, warned Woolf, many of which are not vetted. It’s important for educators to make sure they are using programs that are evidence-based and age-appropriate, he said.

As with much SEL programming, secondary students—especially high schoolers—tend to be an afterthought, said Woolf, and it can be hard to find good curricula and resources geared to older students. This is particularly problematic given that this age group needs these supports the most as they navigate technology.

One way to address this, said Woolf, is to consult high school students on their social-emotional learning needs as it relates to tech. As digital natives, they have a better grasp on their needs than the adults often do, he said.

Schools should also seek student input on tech policies in their school—such as around smartphone use—as a way both to craft more-meaningful policies and to get students involved in the process, Woolf recommends. Student voice, or giving students avenues to have a say in how their school is run, is a tenet of SEL.

Easing the tension between technology and social-emotional development

For a long time, technology and social-emotional learning were thought of as distinct things, sometimes even at odds with one another because technology was seen as undermining students’ social skills.

But the pandemic has forced schools to think about delivering social-emotional learning and other well-being supports in new ways, said Woolf. And while social-emotional learning can help support healthy tech use, the reverse is also true, if often overlooked: tech can also support SEL.

There are app-based check-in tools—such as mood meters—where students tap an emoji that depicts their current mood and, depending upon what they select, link to a related mindfulness activity. This is less work for teachers than the traditional paper mood meters, said Woolf, and it makes it far easier for the district to collect and see trends across the data.

Data management programs with dashboards also make it easier for schools to collect and analyze data important to understanding the social-emotional needs and abilities of students, said Schlinger of CASEL. Survey data on whether students feel engaged, connected, or safe in school can be easily broken down by gender, age, race, income status, and other factors.

As with a lot of other technology products and services, these advancements bring with them significant privacy concerns.

“I have heard from a lot of parents and teachers, if we’re going to ask students about how they are feeling, that could be bringing up sensitive information,” Woolf said.

Technology can help educators in other ways, said Schlinger. Zoom and other video conference tools have made it easier for teachers to meet with parents, building up those all-crucial relationships, said Schlinger and they have made PD opportunities—including those to improve SEL—more accessible to teachers.

While technology has created new challenges for kids’ social-emotional development—and for educators teaching these skills—it’s not helpful to think of the two as distinct or in tension with one another, said Schlinger.

“Technology is not going away so we need to provide our young people with these skills,” she said.

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Data analysis for this article was provided by the EdWeek Research Center. Learn more about the center’s work.

A version of this article appeared in the April 13, 2022 edition of Education Week as Is Tech Destroying Kids’ Social Skills? Here’s How Social-Emotional Learning Can Help

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