Promoting emotional wellness in our schools by Seth Solway

I have been thinking about technology’s impact children’s emotional development. By now, most of us have recognized that digital media like tablets, cellphones, and video games have become so easily accessible that you’re more likely to hear about the latest news from your 12-year-old’s Facebook feed than from the TV news or the newspaper. Because of our increased reliance on social media and technology, more and more school teachers are using internet-based assignments and online group projects than ever before. With the recent domination of “screen time,” one must wonder how children’s relationships are impacted when they spend fewer hours face-to-face with their peers.

In truth, it is nearly impossible to measure the long-term impact of these recent trends. Even so, we can use the basic principles of social learning theory to identify a potential problem. Psychologist Albert Bandura revealed an important construct in the human condition; we learn through social modeling, a process of observing and imitating the behavior of others. Experiments like the Bobo Doll study (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zerCK0lRjp8) tend to focus on the negative implications of modeling, but many of our growth promoting experiences are gained through this process as well. I worry that if children have less social contact with their peers, they will have fewer opportunities to develop solutions to their social and emotional problems when they arise. Just to give a quick example of the importance of peer socialization, think about what happens when a thirteen-year-old boy’s heart is broken after a breakup with his first romantic partner. To whom should he turn? Typically, teenagers seek the support of their friends far before telling their parents about their troubles. In talking with his friends, our lovesick teenager will hear many stories of his friends’ own experiences of rejection and disappointment, recovery, and renewed optimism after similar situations. It is likely that hearing the stories of his friends will validate our teenager’s feelings and give him hope that his recovery is possible. Talking about shared experiences is not only helpful for dealing with breakups, but also allows us to overcome a whole range of unanticipated troubles that arise during childhood. Looking forward, our increased participation in solitary activities could preclude the social problem-solving skills that develop as we discuss our personal struggles with a group of our peers.

There is no reason why the shift towards independent learning should be at the expense of a strong social and emotional education. Forward thinking teachers (and parents too!) might encourage activities that foster emotional development and mastery by using a child’s most powerful information technology, his or her creativity.