Promote Social Skills: Step Away From the Screen

By Dave Sylvestro, with Eve Kessler, Esq.

At A Glance

Children who spend an excessive amount of time in front of screens miss the opportunity to develop important skills • Use common-sense approaches to encourage actual social interaction and limit screen time


2.5.8-Promote-Social-SkillsWith only so many hours in a day, too much screen time can inhibit the essential face-to-face time your child needs to develop the social/emotional competence necessary to navigate successfully at school, at home, and in the community.

Why is this important? With enhanced social/emotional competence comes improved self-esteem, self-confidence, patience, persistence, empathy, conflict resolution, communication skills, and self-control, as well as a feeling of empowerment and a sense of being able to engage with the world in a positive way.

Social/emotional competence refers to the ability to interact with others, regulate emotions and behaviors, solve problems and communicate effectively.

Promoting Social/Emotional Competence

Given the burgeoning use of technology, kids today often need help learning to balance screen time with time spent engaged with others, learning the language of social interactions and how to function effectively in the real social and emotional world.

Below are the foundational skills that will help your child establish positive connections with others.

  • Survival skills: listening; following directions (e.g., learning to play a board game from instructions or cook from a recipe); ignoring distractions; using positive self-talk; rewarding yourself
  • Interpersonal skills: sharing; asking for permission; joining an activity; waiting your turn; giving and taking compliments
  • Problem-solving skills: deciding what to do; asking for help; knowing how and when to apologize; accepting consequences; offering ideas and suggestions
  • Conflict-resolution skills: being able to deal with teasing, losing, accusations, being left out and peer pressure

Use the following guidelines to teach these important skills:

Model appropriate friendship skills with both children and adults. Guide your child patiently; don’t fly off the handle or blame others. Give him the language to use, and be the respectful listener you want him to be, even when it’s difficult to do so.

“There seems to be a misunderstanding between you and Mary. Let’s clarify what happened and come up with a fair solution.”

“You’re telling me that such and such happened, but because your story is so different from what I saw, it’s hard for me to tell what’s really true. Tell me again, so I can really understand—this is important.”

Recognize and reinforce examples of positive cooperation, such as sharing, complimenting and helping others.

“I noticed how happy your little brother was when you were helping him practice his tee-ball batting. I bet that felt great for you, too. 

“I’m so proud of you for letting your friends go first on your skateboard this afternoon.”

Be watchful, give feedback, and allow for practice. Glean all you can from a situation. Give your child little bits of specific feedback about things she’s doing and allow her the opportunity to over-learn. The object is for your child’s positive social/emotional behavior to become automatic.

“When you come up to a group of other kids and start telling them what to do, has that worked for you? What if you entered the group and listened first?”

“When you get excited, I often hear your voice getting overly loud. I also notice that people lean away from you sometimes, as if they don’t have enough ‘personal space.’ Do you know what that means? How about I give you a signal whenever I notice that happening…”

Limiting Screen Time

Ensuring that your child has opportunities to improve and practice real-world social interactions may mean putting boundaries around the use of electronic devices:

  • Allow an appropriate number of hours of media time per day. Establish a new routine that everyone can live with. Explain, “It’s always frustrating when the rules change, but I feel this is for the best… ”
  • Make your child’s bedroom a “media-free” zone for resting, reflection, and decompression, sleep.
  • Encourage non-media entertainment, such as reading and/or listening to books, playing board games, and being outdoors. Participate with your kids and make the experiences fun and stimulating, so they will want to continue and further their involvement.
  • Identify how you can limit your own screen time. Keep in mind that increased parental screen time displaces face-to-face parent-child interactions. Begin a new practice yourself, for example, by setting mealtimes as phone-free times and allowing everyone to participate in discussions. Make these face-to-face times more pleasurable by encouraging—and practicing—active listening skills.
  • Encourage your kids to teach you how to play a video game. By giving your kids the opportunity to be an “expert” in something they love, you are effectively encouraging their development of social-pragmatic language skills, patience, cooperation, and improved self-confidence.
  • Model and teach your kids active methods of self-soothing and emotional regulation, such as focused breathing and mindfulness, so they can quiet their bodies and distracted thoughts.
  • Reinforce proper Internet rules and provide positive feedback when your kids follow them.
  • Remember that kids will be kids. Expect some mistakes and use them as opportunities for learning.

This article is based on the presentation, “Promoting Social Skills Development in a Screen-Oriented World,” by David P. Sylvestro, MA, CSP, School Psychologist, Eagle Hill Schools, co-sponsored by SPED*NET, Special Education Network of Wilton (CT), Ltd. and the South Norwalk Public Library. Eve Kessler, Esq., a criminal appellate attorney with The Legal Aid Society, NYC, is co-founder of SPED*NET Wilton and a Contributing Editor of Smart Kids.

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