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Social Media Is Hurting Social-Emotional Skills. How 4 School Districts Are Fighting Back

By Lauraine Langreo — March 25, 2024 7 min read
As part of a SEL lesson, 6th grade students at Swope Middle School in Reno, Nev., practice online safety measures.
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Social media, generative artificial intelligence, and other advances in digital technology are already dramatically influencing how kids develop social-emotional skills.

A majority of educators believe social media negatively impacts those skills, such as how students communicate, how they treat others, how isolated they feel, or how they perceive themselves, according to a nationally representative EdWeek Research Center survey of 595 teachers, school leaders, and district leaders conducted in December and January.

These concerns come as the share of teenagers who say they’re online “almost constantly” has roughly doubled since 2014-15, according to the Pew Research Center. A growing number of studies have also linked children’s use of smartphones and social media to their worsening mental, social, and emotional well-being.

In addition to navigating academic challenges, districts know they also need to address the effects that digital technology has on students’ social-emotional skills. Social-emotional learning is the teaching of nonacademic skills—such as emotional regulation, communication, and collaboration—that are important for success in school and in life.

The EdWeek Research Center survey found that a majority (65 percent) of educators agree that they should be responsible for helping students learn to use social media in ways that support their mental health and well-being.

Many schools are already on the right track, but many others are not. A few of the districts Education Week initially contacted for this story said they have not thought about applying SEL skills to tech use. A small majority (54 percent) of students said a teacher or an adult at their school has discussed how to use social media in ways that do not damage their mental health and well-being, according to an EdWeek Research Center survey of 1,056 high school students conducted in February.

The most effective SEL programs are the ones that take a whole-district approach and build it into the everyday practices of schools, said Stacy Hawthorne, the chief academic officer for Learn21, a nonprofit that provides educational technology solutions to schools.

In conversations with Education Week, four district leaders shared how their schools are teaching SEL skills that they believe will help students navigate the increasingly digital and complex world they live in.


Washoe County School District, Nevada: ‘The long-lasting consequences’

“In our role, a large part of what we’ve done is working to educate our families and educate our students about social media, about their digital reputation and the long-lasting consequences,” said Trish Shaffer, who is the multitiered systems of support and SEL coordinator for the 60,000-student Washoe district.

Social media and other digital technologies can be a gift or they can be used as weapons, Shaffer said. SEL skills, such as responsible decisionmaking, self- and social awareness, and relationship skills, can help students learn to use technology in positive ways, she said.

SEL in the district—where 55 percent of students are on free or reduced-price meals—is taught through explicit instruction, some of which targets social media use, especially in middle and high schools, Shaffer said. SEL is also embedded into what teachers do regularly in the classroom at all grade levels, such as having an inclusive welcome at the beginning of every class and an intentional close at the end.

The district hosts “Parent University” classes, too, Shaffer said. Whether it’s during in-person events or through videos posted online, they teach parents how to control their kids’ screen time, how to monitor social media use, how to navigate certain apps, how to understand youth lingo, and how to set tech-use boundaries.

Sixth graders engage in a Social and Emotional Learning (SEL) lesson focused on online safety at Swope Middle School in Reno, Nev., on March 19, 2024.

“Where it is developmentally appropriate, we’re trying to teach our parents and kids the same thing,” she said. “Maybe not teaching our kids how to shut down screen time but talking about ‘catfishing’ (when one pretends to be someone else by posting false information), making sure you research things, understanding what is posted lives on forever, understanding how it can significantly impact a peer’s mental health.”

Generative AI tools are still new, so the district is working on infusing those tech advances into existing SEL lessons on social media, Shaffer said. For now, the district is teaching its staff about AI and ensuring that they know how to be responsible, conscious consumers of AI tools.

We teach our kids that there is a time and place for the use of technology and social media, which means that there are times when it’s important to put it down

Pewaukee School District, Wisconsin: ‘Understand [tech’s] role in mental health and wellness’

The Pewaukee school district has had a digital-citizenship curriculum in place for years, “well before we saw an increase in the social-emotional needs of students,” said Danielle Bosanec, the chief academic officer for the 2,900-student district.

But ensuring that the district is supporting students—helping them learn “how to use technology in ethical ways” and helping them understand its role in their mental health and wellness—has become “much more prevalent,” Bosanec said.

The district—where 13 percent of students quality for free or reduced-price meals—combines the work they do around SEL and digital citizenship to ensure that students have the strategies they need to navigate the stressors they have in their lives, whether they’re online or in person, Bosanec said.

Guidance counselors provide SEL lessons in the classroom for K-8 students on a regular schedule, Bosanec said, while classroom teachers are trained on how to support student wellness.

For instance, Bosanec said the district is focusing a lot on “lateral reading,” which is the practice of verifying what you’re reading by searching for other articles on the same topic by other writers. Students also learn about responsible social media use during lessons about building positive, healthy relationships.

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Hermiston School District, Oregon: ‘Think through problems and communicate with each other’

In Hermiston, the focus is on ensuring students not only have the knowledge but also the social-emotional skills they need for tomorrow, said Tricia Mooney, the superintendent of the 5,500-student district. This means teaching students in ways that strengthen their collaboration, critical thinking, complex problem-solving, and communication skills.

“Ultimately, what we want for our kids is for them to be successful citizens in the future,” Mooney said. “No matter what happens with technology, if our students know how to collaborate with one another, think through problems, and communicate with each other, they’re going to be able to navigate whatever gets thrown at them.”

Hermiston—where 84 percent of students quality for free or reduced-price meals—combines SEL and digital citizenship to support students’ well-being online. Students are taught how to use digital resources appropriately. When students are struggling with using digital tools while in school, educators ask students to take a break from the resources and reteach appropriate skills, Mooney said.

Teachers have professional learning communities and instructional coaches who help them embed those principles into their daily practice.

To continue the learning at home, the district hosts seminars and provides information to parents about what to look for and how to support their children’s well-being online.

“As we navigate [advances in technology], we really just need to focus on the skills we know students are going to need [when they leave],” Mooney said.

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San Ramon Valley Unified School District, California: ‘When it’s important to put [technology] down’

The San Ramon Valley school system uses a combination of SEL curriculum, counselor activities in the classroom, specific dialogues with students, and connections with parents to ensure students have the social-emotional skills they need to navigate the digital world, according to John Malloy, the superintendent of the 30,000-student district.

“We teach our kids that there is a time and place for the use of technology and social media, which means that there are times when it’s important to put it down,” Malloy said. Students also learn about healthy relationships, how to deal with emotions, and how to communicate effectively in person.

Each school has a team of educators and support staff who keep up with the academic, social, and emotional needs of the students and ensure that students are learning what healthy use looks like, Malloy said.

The district—where 4 percent of students qualify for free or reduced-price meals—is also thinking about how students can assist each other in making healthy decisions. “Peers learn from each other very effectively,” Malloy said, “as long as there’s a trusted adult facilitating in some way.”

Educating parents is also important because they are “on a continuum of how they allow their students to use technology and social media,” Malloy said. The district has started parent information nights, where they bring their questions and the district provides speakers or lessons to address those questions.

“I’m a former counselor, so I’m speaking from a little bit of experience when I say we have a very well-thought-out approach to how we help our kids be healthy in the physical world,” Malloy said. “I would argue as educators and as counselors in schools, we need to do a better job of thinking about how we help our kids navigate healthily through the digital world, because they’re spending a considerable amount of time in that space.”

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

Coverage of the intersection of social-emotional learning, technology, and student well-being is supported in part by a grant from the Susan Crown Exchange, at www.scefdn.org. Education Week retains sole editorial control over the content of this coverage.
A version of this article appeared in the April 03, 2024 edition of Education Week as Social Media Is Hurting Social-Emotional Skills. How 4 School Districts Are Fighting Back

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