Screen Time and SEL—Pitfalls and Payoffs

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In education, there have been many discussions about the pendulum that swings back and forth between the academic domain and the affective domain. Depending on where things stand in society, the pendulum follows trends: the focus may begin on academics and then slowly move the other way before easing back to academics again. There are some who view this pendulum as not just swinging back and forth but as a spiral, spinning upward and showing that over time our thinking elevates to reflect what we have learned and what we now know.

Social and emotional learning is nothing new—in fact, its roots stem back to Plato, who discussed producing citizens of good character through a balanced curriculum (Edutopia, 2011). But as we have spiraled through this discussion across centuries, the question remains—how do we engage children in the process of SEL with evolving technology? Unlike the times of Plato, John Dewey, and James P. Comer, we now have a layer—the growing impact of the digital world. Digital interaction and the screen time it requires permeate almost every aspect of life now—social media, apps, computers, smartphones, and streaming television. What effect does technology have on children’s social and emotional development? It can be a difficult question to answer, in part because technology changes so rapidly, and it is nearly impossible for research to keep up. Once something has been studied and reported on, it may already be irrelevant. However, there are some consistent findings and some commonsense conclusions that can be drawn.

Screen time affects bedtime. Viewing media, meaning any interaction with a screen, can negatively affect sleep. The blue light many screens throw can affect melatonin production, which can cause sleep disturbances, reducing the quality and quantity of sleep (Gottschalk, 2019).

If students are not sleeping well and are not well rested, their learning will suffer— formally and informally, academically and socially. Well-rested children are better learners and are more likely to benefit from our instruction on social and emotional skills and engage more positively in their world.

One approach to lessen screen time before bed is establishing a tech-free zone in the home, such as the bedroom. Other approaches to consider are turning off devices an hour before bedtime or setting a tech-free time after dinner. Offer suggestions to parents for screen-free activities for children to do before bedtime to help ensure a good night’s sleep so they will be more available for learning each day. For example:

  • Create: Build, draw, write, paint, make something
  • Play: Enjoy a board game, do a puzzle
  • Be active: Take a bike ride, go for a walk, visit a playground
  • Collaborate: Put on a play, have a fashion show, cook a meal or bake together

Screen time takes away from playtime. Preliminary findings show that children who overuse online media may become too preoccupied with activities such as video games or social media, show a decreased interest in “real life” relationships, and have difficulty reducing time spent on technology, sometimes experiencing withdrawal-like symptoms (Council on Communications and Media, 2016). When children spend much of their time in front of a screen, they are not engaged in periods of unstructured play and social interaction, which is when self-awareness, problem-solving, creativity, imagination, communication skills, and other social and emotional competencies develop.

By limiting children’s screen time, families can encourage healthy activities such as regular exercise, interacting with friends and family, and developing interests and hobbies that are unplugged. As educators, we should monitor screen use within the classroom. Be careful not to let digital instruction dominate real-life, hands-on learning within a social context.

Screen time becomes real time. While students were engaged in a dramatic play opportunity at school, a colleague heard one child say, “Hey, this is just like the real thing in my video game.” In this case, video games did not imitate real life for the student; video games were real life. Social and emotional skills such as listening, delaying gratification, sharing and taking turns, and empathy develop through relationships—real relationships, with adults and peers, that require face- to-face interactions. When a child’s life centers around a video game, they miss opportunities to experience invaluable, real-life interactions (Beurkins, 2020).

To help avoid screen time becoming real time, families can make it more interactive and less one-dimensional and passive when children are engaged on screen. One way is to simply talk with their child. When children are playing a video game or watching television, talk to them and engage them in conversation about what is happening on the screen and what they are thinking as they watch. When children, particularly young children are just watching a screen, they are not talking. When children are not talking, their language is not developing.

To help offset the virtual world, educators need to increase the opportunities for real-life interactions. This can be achieved through daily Morning Meetings, closing circles, and frequent use of interactive learning structures, which give students a chance to talk with each other and time for free play and recess.

Screen time can be learning time. While technology can have its downside, there are potential benefits of using technology for academic and social learning, especially if educators are thoughtful about its use. For example, video games can be competitive and a good opportunity for children to practice skills such as waiting their turn, being a good sport, problem-solving, and transitioning to a preferred activity. Media is really just another environment—albeit a virtual one—but still an environment (Brown, Shifrin, & Hill, 2015). And as with any environment, it needs to be managed with clear expectations, boundaries, and limits because it can have both positive and negative effects.

As we do with our physical environments, we must embed SEL into children’s virtual experiences. In face-to-face teaching, we look for ways and places to talk about and practice social and emotional skills every day, and we should do the same when it comes to technology in the classroom. When using apps, videos, or online games in the classroom, look for places where students will be using SEL skills and then name them as part of your opening. Reflect on them as part of your closing. For example, you could say: “Today you will be working with a partner and using a video app to make a commercial to advertise the book you read for ELA. This will require good communication and collaboration between you and your partner. Think back to when we role-played what to do when you and your partner have different ideas and how you come to a decision respectfully. Who can remind us of one way to do that?”

Screen time in the classroom environment often is solitary and sedentary. But it does not have to be. By making technology use interactive, students will have the opportunity to talk with each other. Engaging in real-life social interactions while using technology in the classroom gives children a chance to practice important social and emotional skills. For example, have students engage with a partner or small group when using an app. If an online learning activity works best independently, consider having a small- or whole-group discussion at the end of the activity. Both of these approaches will allow students to reflect on social and emotional skills they use while they are learning. Not only will it help deepen understanding around content, it will also model how to use technology as a tool to connect with others: “Today during your work period, you will be practicing your math facts. One of your choices will be to use the new app we learned yesterday. Remember that with this app you will work independently, but at the end of our practice time, be ready to share with your table group how this app helped you practice.”

Keep in mind that when it comes to the digital world, children, and learning, it’s not just about the minutes of screen time. Content matters. And not all media content is created equal (Gottschalk, 2019).

As educators, our responsibility is to vet the media choices we use in our classrooms. We shouldn’t just quickly or randomly choose an app, program, or video, but rather we should look for quality media. Quality over convenience. Three Responsive Classroom guiding principles (Center for Responsive Schools, n.d.) to keep in mind include:

  • Teaching social and emotional skills is as important as teaching academic content.
  • How we teach is as important as what we teach.
  • Great cognitive growth occurs through social interaction.

These principles apply not just to teaching in the physical environment but in the virtual environment as well. Look for content that helps students with identity, empathy, connection, and creativity. Consult websites that vet digital learning tools to help ensure that you are choosing quality content. With the pendulum swinging once again toward the importance of social and emotional learning, and along with the booming business of technology, there are many online resources and digital tools specifically designed to teach social and emotional skills. Finding class-appropriate games and apps can provide a welcome and kid-friendly way to teach and practice these important skills.

The plugged-in life is here to stay, so it’s about balance. The digital world can hinder social and emotional learning, or it can be a lever for social and emotional learning. It is about taking what we know and using common sense to guide our decisions and choices. Educators should see themselves as “media mentors” for our students (American Academy of Pediatrics, 2016). By helping students learn how to value real-life experiences and prioritize the use of media in their lives, they can avoid letting their real worlds be swallowed by a virtual one and equip them with the social and emotional skills they need to live successfully in both worlds.

The American Academy of Pediatrics is now advocating for maintaining a healthy “media diet,” rather than focusing solely on limits of minutes. A healthy media diet includes a balance of screen time along with important and healthy activities such as physical exercise, face-to-face social interactions with adults and peers, and hands-on exploration. As Jenny Radesky notes, “What’s important is that parents be their child’s ‘media mentor.’ That means teaching them how to use it as a tool to create, connect, and learn” (American Academy of Pediatrics, 2016). Here are some of the American Academy of Pediatrics’ (2016) recommendations:

  • For children 2 to 5 years old: Limit screen use to 1 hour per day of high-quality programs. Parents should co-view media with children to help them understand what they are seeing and apply it to the world around them.
  • For children ages 6 and older: Place consistent limits on the time spent using media, and the types of media, and make sure media does not take the place of adequate sleep, physical activity, and other behaviors essential to health.
  • Designate media-free times together, such as dinner as well as media-free locations at home, such as children’s bedrooms.
  • Have ongoing communication about online citizenship and safety, including treating others with respect online and offline.

Amy Wade is a school counselor at Canandaigua Primary School in Canandaigua, New York, for grades PreK–2. She has been an integral part of that school community for 28 years and serves as her district’s Responsive Classroom trainer. Amy has 20 years of experience serving as a consulting teacher for Center for Responsive Schools and training educators in the Responsive Classroom approach.