Reimagining Social-Emotional Learning to Include Social Media

Summer 2021

By Laura Tierney

NAIS-2-(1).jpgThe pandemic has caused a spike in screen time, accelerating a trend of more students using technology. A pre-pandemic 2019 Common Sense Media report showed that students spent an average of 7.5 hours consuming digital media each day. A recent Nielsen survey found that daily average screen time among adults surged from 10 hours to 13.5 hours from fall 2019 to spring 2020. The Social Institute’s Annual Student Survey found that 42% of fifth graders own a phone, a number that skyrockets to 94% by the time they enter eighth grade.
While past generations would go to the movies or mall for socialization—which is vital for healthy development—today’s students use technology to build meaningful connections. They’re learning new dance moves and “dueting” with friends and influencers on TikTok. They’re joining movements and supporting causes they care about through Instagram. They get together in groups on FaceTime or group text threads. And rather than talking on the phone, they use Snapchat to have a conversation. Social media is how students socialize.
While social-emotional learning (SEL) has been a necessary component of education for years, many schools and parents have overlooked the role social media and technology play in socialization, more likely focusing on how to be safe or limit screen time. Social media and technology in fact play a major role in students’ social-emotional health, yet most SEL curriculums still don’t incorporate the training and skills needed to use these tools in a positive and meaningful way. In light of the pandemic, schools should be working even more to embed SEL throughout all the work they do, and not in a one-off kind of way. They must go beyond teaching students to be “good digital citizens” in order to cultivate life skills that reflect reality and empower students to navigate their world.

Engaging Students

Schools have long recognized the need to incorporate SEL so that children and adults learn to understand and manage emotions, set goals, show empathy for others, establish positive relationships, and make responsible decisions. This proactive education can fuel school culture by promoting good mental health, wellness, and school connectedness and can lead to better academic outcomes.
To do that, SEL must incorporate the latest ways that students are social. Any SEL program that ignores that social media and technology are part of students’ social lives misses the mark and signals that adults are out of touch. Understanding how and where students socialize is essential to provide them the support they need. 
While connecting SEL with social media and technology might feel obvious, when it comes to implementing a solution, schools face several challenges. One is engaging students. The truth is, many of them tune out when adults talk about social media. Most students report that adults lecture them on how bad social media is and try to scare them with worst-case scenarios. Another reality is that students are the experts—they know more about social media than most educators and parents, and they take pride in staying several steps ahead. 
Another challenge is that faculty fatigue is rising, and teachers feel that being intentional about integrating SEL into their work with students is one more thing when they’re already overwhelmed. A National Board for Professional Teaching Standards survey of more than 3,000 teachers in August-September 2020 found that 75% of them are working more hours than before the pandemic, with nearly 20% working at least 15 additional hours per week. Meanwhile, 28% reported that their school or district provides “adequate” access to counselors and other mental health resources in light of the pandemic. 
Then there are the parents who feel helpless or behind the curve. iPhones didn’t debut until 2007, and social media as we know it didn’t exist until the past decade. This is the first generation of parents to navigate this obstacle course, and many long for the days when kids would play outside and climb trees rather than build worlds in Minecraft and endlessly scroll through TikTok.

Integrating the Work

While it may seem easier for educators to ban phones in school and pass the responsibility to parents, doing so ignores the degree to which this is a major part of students’ lives at school and at home. Schools can and should proactively cultivate community and further reimagine what SEL looks like.
Flipping the script from negative to positive. Adults often focus on how social situations involving social media can lead to negative outcomes for students. Sure, avoiding potholes is important but so is confidently navigating life. Rather than just focusing on the don’ts—don’t connect with strangers; don’t cyberbully; don’t spend too much time on social—we should coach students on the do’s, including protecting their privacy, supporting others, and striking a balance with technology. Empowering students to make high-character choices no matter the platform, device, or social situation prepares them to confidently navigate an ever-evolving world.
This positive approach is not new to students. According to a 2018 study by Pew Research Center, a higher percentage of U.S. teens (31%) say that social media has had a mostly positive effect compared with the percentage of teens who say it has had a mostly negative effect (24%). The biggest benefit by far? Building connections. Among U.S. teens who say that social media has a positive impact, 40% cite connecting with family and friends as the main reason why. During the pandemic, students have sought out social platforms even more as a way to socialize.     
To help students, we must reframe how we talk about social media and technology. I remember having lunch with a student at one of our partner schools. She shared, “If adults only focus on the don’ts, how are we supposed to know what to do in different situations?” Brilliant, right? We teach students not to cyberbully, but we can also teach them how to cyberback by supporting others online. Cyberbacking is simply a way to build up those being bullied online. It can look like an encouraging heart emoji, a kind comment to counter hateful ones, or a personal text message. Even more, we can show them positive examples of students doing this across the country, because when it comes to social-emotional learning, there is no greater influence than student mentorship and positive peer influence.  
Students need to see 16-year-old Marley Dias, who started the #1000BlackGirlBooks social media campaign to collect books with diverse characters for her school library. They must see 14-year-old Isis Brown, who used YouTube to stand up to online bullies who called her a terrorist. They must see high school senior Klaudia Jazwinska, who used Twitter to find out which college was the right fit for her. Students must see how their peers are using social media for good to understand its positive power.
Proactively pivoting from reactionary “whack-a-mole.” Schools everywhere are playing whack-a-mole with social media and technology. An incident involving students occurs, educators and parents react by desperately searching for a Band-Aid solution, and the cycle continues.
Proactively investing in SEL pays off. Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning (CASEL) research found that schools receive an 11:1 return for every dollar invested in SEL programming through savings on costs not incurred for intervention. This investment helps schools operate more efficiently while offering other priceless benefits, including strengthening the school’s reputation by staying ahead of the game and meeting students where they are. 
Jason Lopez, head of school at The Pegasus School (CA), has elevated his school’s SEL approach to strengthen school culture and student connection. “The pandemic pushed us forward with our technology use and with our understanding of how much our kids need this education,” he says. “Before, there were so many things we would prioritize in front of this, and we finally came to the realization that we just can’t push it off any longer. We have to face the things that we as parents and faculty just don’t know about. We can no longer ignore and assume that students will simply pick it up somewhere else. It’s here, we need to understand it fully, and we need to help our students.”
Flexing learning to fit your community. It’s easy to fall into the trap of overgeneralizing social media use among students. But how a boy in sixth grade interacts with the world online is completely different from the experience of an 11th grade girl. Watching YouTube videos and sending Snaps can fall on different ends of the social media spectrum.
Trends change by gender and grade level, and schools can mine this data to guide relevant, real-world SEL topics, including how to find and evaluate credible sources, social media’s impact on social unrest, and how to combat screen fatigue.     
We polled our partner schools to determine the most-used apps by grade level. Here are each grade’s top three favorite apps: 
TikTok illustrates how preferences differ by gender. In The Social Institute’s Annual Student Survey of nearly 2,600 upper school students, 52% of girls listed it among their three favorite apps, ranking it higher than any other app. Meanwhile, just 22% of boys listed it among their favorite three apps/platforms, ranking it fifth behind YouTube, online gaming, Snapchat, and Instagram. 
Flexing lessons into your existing schedule. SEL should cover a wide range of topics—from current events and the science behind social media to learning the art of a respectful debate and recognizing where stereotypes stem from—allowing it to be flexibly integrated into the school schedule. Most independent schools facilitate SEL in advisory, while others are incorporating SEL in health classes, seminar programs, leadership development classes, or core classes such as English and social studies. 
Episcopal Academy (PA) successfully incorporates The Social Institute’s interactive, gamified lessons into its elective “Mind, Body, and Spirit” while using current events lessons to set up discussions in history class. By making SEL relatable and aligning with relevant topics, schools can more seamlessly adapt lessons to fit their needs and schedule.
Teaming up to serve entire school communities. When it comes to talking about online experiences, there is a big disconnect between students and parents. The Social Institute surveyed more than 5,000 students at our partner schools and sent many of the same questions to their parents. Some of the data revealed a startling disconnect. Take, for example, the question of how often parents and students talk about their online experiences. Students are more than four times more likely to say that they “almost never” talk about their experiences on social media compared to what their parents report. Uniting students, parents, and educators with consistent messaging helps mend those broken connections.
Ravenscroft School (NC) was the first school to partner with The Social Institute. From running discussion-based workshops during advisory and partnering with students to design lessons to providing parents with follow-up discussion questions to continue the conversation at home and hosting parent workshops, the school community is actively bridging the gap between children and adults when it comes to SEL and social media education.         
Head of School Doreen Kelly says this team approach is vital to sustained success. “It’s important to educate and empower the students on positive social media use here at school, and when they go home, they are also being influenced by their parents. We’ve found that the most comprehensive and effective solution is to focus on educating the whole community: educators, parents, and students.” 

Educating the entire school community—students, parents, and educators—reduces digital double standards and promotes a common, unifying language. For one of the biggest drivers of social development, students need high standards modeled by adults, both at school and at home.
Starting with student-led design. Students are digital natives, while most parents and educators are digital immigrants still picking up the language. The fastest way to lose “street cred” with students is to use the wrong lingo—ask them who they are “private messaging” on Snapchat and you’ve lost all credibility.
As social media and technology intersect with SEL, it’s all the more reason to ensure student voices are woven into the fabric of SEL curriculum. In our work at The Social Institute, we have what we call the “snicker test.” If any phrase, question, or role-play scenario makes students snicker or roll their eyes, it doesn’t make it into our curriculum. 

Reimagining SEL

We don’t yet know the long-term implications of prolonged isolation and remote learning. But we do know that social media and technology will continue to play a significant role in shaping how students think, act, feel, listen, and lead. 
Preparing students to successfully navigate an increasingly complex world means searching for innovative solutions fit for the modern age. The intersection of SEL, social media, and technology presents the opportunity to reimagine the path ahead.

School Playbook

5 key steps to support students’ social-emotional health
  1. Ensure social-emotional learning (SEL) is woven into the fabric of your school.
  1. Take a cross-departmental approach by meeting with leaders across counseling, student life, technology, and division leadership. 
  1. In your cross-department team, discuss how your efforts around SEL align with your school’s mission and north star. 
  1. Identify when SEL will integrate into your school schedule, whether during advisory, homeroom, residential life, an elective class, or core class(es).
  1. Sustain year-round SEL with your entire school community through student workshops, follow-up conversation starters for parents, faculty professional development, and more.  
Download the full playbook, Social Media’s Role in Social-Emotional Health, at

The chart above has been updated from the original, which appears in the print issue of the Summer 2021 issue and includes inaccurate percentages that were inadvertently mislabeled in design. We regret the error. 
Laura Tierney

Laura Tierney is the founder and CEO of The Social Institute.