Students, Screens, and SEL

By Bonnie Nishihara, Assistant Head and Director of Educational Design + Innovation

Over the summer I listened to an episode of the podcast Note to Self, which is described by its host, Manoush Zomorodi, as, "the tech show about being human." The topic of the episode was kids and screens and the special guest was Elizabeth Englander, a researcher, professor of psychology, and the executive director of the Massachusetts Aggression Reduction Center at Bridgewater State University. I found the episode surprisingly comforting. Why? It was not because the episode miraculously solved every parenting dilemma posed by the digital age or presented groundbreaking new evidence that screens are problem-free. I was comforted because Englander, despite specializing in research on cyberbullying, aggression, and social success in children, is optimistic. Point after point, the solutions she was suggesting sounded to me like they could have been taken from a Mark Day School playbook. I was comforted because the wisdom Englander has gleaned from her research suggests that at Mark Day, we are on the right track. I also felt inspired by ways I think we could do even better.

According to Englander, the social interactions children experience online are inextricably linked with the social interactions they experience face-to-face. Englander explains that many cyberbullying studies and interventions have mistakenly focused exclusively on online behaviors. What her research has shown is that how a child feels in response to social conflict online is predicted not by the online behaviors themselves, but by the broader social context for the child. Englander says, "...it's misleading to separate out digital behaviors." To me this suggests that the best defense we can give our children to protect them from being hurt by the bad behavior of others online is to attend to their overall social-emotional health. The key to making children resilient online is making them resilient offline. This is exactly what the SEL (social and emotional literacy) program at Mark Day School is all about: nurturing the overall social-emotional health of our students. We know so much about how SEL benefits students. Now we can add to that list that SEL helps produce more resilient digital citizens.

Englander emphasizes that research does not point to easy formulas parents can follow for safely and wisely regulating their children's media use, but it does provide us with a simple rule of thumb: focus more on the output (i.e. How is my child doing?) and slightly less on the input (i.e. How much YouTube has he watched this week?). Englander reminds parents that the digital drama that we witness adolescents going through does not last forever; it will pass. Englander urges parents, even in the midst of the digital drama, to know their children and to assess how they are doing as a whole. The questions to ask yourself are: How is my child doing? How are they feeling? How are they sleeping? Are there signs of behavior problems? How are things going for them socially? Do they have friends? Is my child doing well in school? Does my child engage in a variety of different activities?

Englander's research shows that children frequently underestimate the impact of their behavior on others when they are online. Humans are wired to be empathic to other humans, but the feedback systems that foster empathy, which are largely unconscious, rely heavily on being physically present with one another. Children who do not predict the impact of their online behavior in advance of seeing it play out are not necessarily being malicious. The good news is that Englander sees evidence that children can and do learn to account for this. Online empathy is a skill that can be taught and can be learned.

This is certainly something we believe at Mark Day School. Through SEL lessons that are integrated into the program K-8, students actively work to develop empathy. I believe that students can learn to notice and think about how empathy plays a role in digital communication long before they ever have access to a digital device of their own. Even in the first grade at Mark Day School students learn that you listen with your eyes, ears, heart and mind. Students can ask themselves what happens when you can't see the person you are listening to? When you can't listen with your eyes, does it make it harder to listen with your heart? Teachers and parents can talk about the obstacles to empathy that digital tools create, even to very young students, as well as how we can overcome those obstacles. By the end of the podcast I found myself thinking about how I might find more opportunities to deepen the work we do at Mark Day in connecting the dots between SEL and digital citizenship in this way.

Englander suggests that adults talk to children about marketing and the business behind social media. She says, "You'd be surprised how often kids told us that all these free social media apps, games, and everything are all free just because there are nice people in the world who want kids to not be bored." At Mark Day School, we want students to be able to spot in age-appropriate ways how various forms of media and marketing aim to manipulate them and profit from that manipulation. Media literacy education has long been one of Mark Day School's four cross-disciplinary literacies. We begin media and information literacy lessons in Kindergarten.

Finally, Englander recommends to parents that they avoid extremes. When it comes to digital media, unfettering access does not work, nor does vilifying media. As adults, we must set limits for children. At Mark Day School students are not allowed to use cell phones at all during the school day. Digital devices for learning are used sparingly K-2 and judiciously in every other grade. We have implemented new rules this year that more clearly define when and how students can use devices across campus.

On the other hand, I believe that digital devices are part of living and learning in the current century. Digital devices can improve teaching and learning in the classroom in countless ways. It is important that students learn to use technology as a tool, not just a toy. No matter how we as adults may feel about gaming and social media, it is undeniable that they are part of the social landscape that children encounter, even for those children who may never game or use social media. There are essential skills that students need to learn that can best be learned when digital tools are part of the toolkit, including lessons related to how to have a balanced and healthy relationship with digital devices.

If you are interested in hearing the podcast episode for yourself, check it out here.