Our Kids Are Spending a Lot of Time in Front of Screens -- Let's Make That a Better Place to Be

Young boy uses his tablet whilst travelling by train
Young boy uses his tablet whilst travelling by train

It's a common refrain these days: kids are spending too much time in front of screens -- from TVs and computers at home to tablets in schools and smartphones everywhere in between. And for many of our children, what happens on those screens is as important and impactful as what happens offline. We can debate the merits and potential consequences of this trend, but we're unlikely to change the reality. So let's not just make sure those places are safe -- let's use them to equip kids with the tools they need to thrive.

A growing body of research has demonstrated the immense impact Social and Emotional Learning (SEL) has on students' short and long term success. A young person's capacity to understand and manage their emotions and their ability to relate effectively to others will influence nearly every aspect of their lives, from their capacity to learn in the classroom to their decision-making and success in relationships. For all of the emphasis our education system rightly places on "hard" skills like STEM, it's the "soft" but essential skills of SEL that will largely determine a young person's academic, professional, and personal success.

With so much as stake, we should be incorporating SEL into every facet of our education system, from tailored curricula and teacher training to digital resources. As the Word Economic Forum described in a recent report, the rising prevalence of "ed-tech" products offer a wealth of possible opportunities to do so. Some of these products, such as the recently launched InspirED website, already promote SEL while features that foster those skills can be incorporated into the development of new technology. We're already using digital tools to teach phonics and arithmetic. Let's use them to teach kids how to manage their emotions and relate more effectively to those around them.

But viewing technology as a tool to empower students does not mean we should overlook the real and all too common dangers the digital landscape presents. According to the Pew Research Center, an astounding 40 percent of all Internet users have personally experienced online harassment, and 73 percent have witnessed it occur to others. These numbers increase alarmingly for younger users, with 70 percent of 18-to-24-year-olds reporting that they have experienced harassment online at least once.

Statistics like these are unacceptable. While it might be tempting to address the problem by simply warning young people to stay offline, that solution is not practical or effective. Instead, we need to work together to make digital environments safer -- especially for young people. Doing so will take collaborative efforts like Hack Harassment that bring together organizations and individuals from across a variety of sectors including the tech industry, academia, and users themselves.

SEL should be viewed as a resource in this fight to combat online harassment. When we empower young people with these skills, we can help those who are experiencing online harassment cope with its effects. Furthermore, we can help to prevent individuals from participating in that type of harmful behavior themselves.

Technology and the digital world it creates will play an increasingly integral role in our lives and economy, but the need for robust social and emotional skills will remain a constant. So as we prepare our students for this changing reality, we must place the same emphasis on SEL as we do on STEM.