How to Reconcile Social-Emotional Support With Screen Time in the COVID-19 Era

Contributing Writer

Social and emotional wellness isn’t typically associated with screen time.

In fact, phones, laptops, computers and televisions are often linked to shorter attention spans, decreased self-esteem, and reduced empathy in children. These reasons are exactly why my husband and I have strict boundaries around our phones, particularly in the evenings. 

So believe me, when it first dawned on me in 2015 that screens were the direction Move This World needed to go in order to effectively scale social-emotional learning in classrooms, I was a little hesitant. How does a screen support cultivating moments of quiet, connection, and expression?

Fast forward to 2020, and screens are not only the primary way school is taking place, but also the safest way we can interact with each other. Fortunately, the lessons we’ve learned during our transition from in-person to digital programming and curriculum reveal that meaningful connection can absolutely be found through screens if we are intentional about how to use them.

What Move This World has discovered the last five years of doing this work online  is that technology can be purposeful in fostering connections to ourselves and those around us — it doesn’t need to be another distraction or source of noise. We can use technology to build our own capacity without overwhelming teachers by adding even more to their lesson prep. When designed thoughtfully, technology allows us to provide lighter-lift solutions for our teachers and students, while still having a high impact.

With Move This World specifically, students interact with the screen, but also with each other. When it comes to social-emotional learning and technology, the key is to leverage that technology to facilitate improved human interaction, in both the short and long term.

Late Adopters, and Champions

Students learn more about each other and themselves each time they follow along with an exercise. Over the long run, they are learning important SEL skills that will improve their ability to learn in school, as well as navigate challenges in the workplace and at home.

Another benefit of technology is that it allows schools to track engagement with data analytics in order to ensure fidelity of implementation  — offering more insight than what is traditionally available in the classroom. This reporting can be used to proactively identify teachers or students who are struggling.

We’ve even seen schools use this information to pair “champion” teachers with “late adopters,” in order to provide coaching and support. This is particularly important for schools continuing in remote learning. They can keep a pulse on what programming teachers, students and even parents are engaging in and proactively offer support to ensure everyone stays on track. 

If there’s access for all, technology can also be used to ensure a consistent, equitable experience for teachers and students. By standardizing implementation, schools know that all students are, at the very least, engaged in reliable foundational support.

In Move This World’s case, this means that regardless of whether teachers have been prepared or trained in SEL — something most teachers say they do not feel supported in— all students will have a uniform baseline from which to identify, express and manage their emotions every day, while exploring their SEL skills.

Again, with much of learning now happening at home, we also need to think about how we can build parent and family capacity with easy-to-use tools and resources for them to support their children. This, of course, does not address the inequitable digital divide we see in our country, but it is a way to ensure students are engaging in evidence-based content that can also support parents and families in their own social-emotional wellness during particularly challenging times. 

With that being said, any discussion around the use of technology in education should center around who needs support most. The first phase of the pandemic laid bare the inequities many students face in simply showing up for class online.

Every step we take along the path of digital education leaves more students and families behind, often from historically disenfranchised communities. It is critical that we do not repeat and perpetuate the mistakes of the past.

If we can move forward in an equitable manner, intentional and meaningful screen time can enhance education for all students. By limiting our exposure to screens, containing the experience and thoughtfully leveraging technology for explicit instruction alongside opportunities for practice, we’re able to more effectively achieve the intended objective.

We’re also setting a positive example for how technology can be used more intentionally and for our benefit.

Sara Potler LaHayne (@sara_lahayne) is Founder and CEO of Move This World, a social-emotional learning program supporting students.

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