Can Tech Help Kids Become Good People?

Several years ago, a young girl in Seattle showed up in the school nurse’s office every day for an entire semester, inexplicably feeling sick. Then, during one visit, as part of a program to help kids who frequently visited the school nurse, the girl was introduced to a computer program by Ripple Effects, a San Francisco-based company that creates universal, comprehensive software for social-emotional skill training and personal guidance. She worked with the program for 15 minutes, and then she went back to class.

We’re driving toward 21st-century skills, higher-order skills, and effective collaboration as a way to empower youth to be positive change agents in their social circle.

The next day, the girl showed up in the school nurse’s office, this time confiding that she had been a victim of incest.

Alice Ray, co-founder and CEO of Ripple Effects, shares this story whenever someone tries to tell her that technology is dehumanizing. “Fifteen minutes of exposure to a machine took the stigma away, recounted that experience in the voice of a peer, and let her know what the actual statistics are, that she’s not alone, that it’s not her fault, and that she should talk to a trusted adult,” she says. “One day later, change happened in her life. How can someone call that dehumanizing? It’s humanizing!”

The story is one example of how technology might be able to help kids get in touch with their emotions, and manage their feelings in positive, effective ways. That’s one of the goals of social-emotional learning, which is now widely recognized as an essential part of school, and a key factor in academic and professional success. There’s a lot of hype about how technology can hurt social-emotional skills: Facebook supposedly makes us narcissistic and lonely, the Internet is rife with cyber-bullies, our gadgets can become addictions and might even cause mental illness. Yet, experts like Ray are trying to use technology to positive social-emotional ends, and they’re seeing promising results.

The Power of Personalization

Founded in 1997, Ripple Effects is one of few evidence-based programs that use technology to teach social-emotional skills. The software is often used in disciplinary settings like detentions or counseling offices, but it can also be used universally in classrooms. And its measurable results are dramatic: higher grades, improved problem-solving, reduced absenteeism, greater retention, and more pro-social behavior, to name a few.

Like many technology programs for academics, Ripple Effects offers a customized experience for each student, focusing on that student’s particular needs. “If a [kid] has been beaten before they get to school—which happens way too often—empathy is probably the last thing they need to learn at that moment,” Ray says. Just as in academics, she explains, not every student has the same strengths and deficits.

And Ripple Effects is efficient when it comes to time and cost. While nothing can replace direct person-to-person experience, the program can reduce the need for costly visits to a psychologist. Ray estimates the school costs for the program at $10 per year per student. In one study, the company saw results from students using the program for just 80 minutes per week, for seven weeks.

Working on the computer is also relatively private—an asset when you’re dealing with emotional stuff that might embarrass students. And while even the best counselors can have a hard time withholding judgment, “the computer is always in solidarity with the learner; it never varies in its respect,” Ray says. “If they’re a bad reader, no one will know.” Using the computer at their own pace also gives students self-confidence. Ripple Effects encourages them to seek out support from trusted adults, but at the same time it trusts them to help themselves.

Ray’s colleague Maurice Elias, a psychology professor at Rutgers and director of the Rutgers Social and Emotional Learning Laboratory, says, “Technology has become so familiar to kids that it’s actually more familiar than sitting down with an adult—just think of it in terms of clocked time—so it makes a lot of sense to capitalize on that.”

Games and Emotions

Violent video games have long been linked with aggressive behavior, but on the other hand, researchers are just starting to harness the positive power of games, including their social-emotional applications. As of this spring, two professors at the University of Wisconsin-Madison are at work developing educational games that teach social-emotional skills, with a $1.39 million grant from the Gates Foundation. The project is a collaboration between Richard Davidson, a professor of psychology and psychiatry, and Kurt Squire, an associate professor in the School of Education and director of the Games, Learning, and Society Initiative—one of the oldest and most established centers on games and learning.

Using artwork, fantasy, and narrative that will appeal to a target audience of eighth graders, Squire and Davidson are developing two games: one that uses breath awareness to improve attention and mental focus, and another focusing on empathy, perhaps by having students read nonverbal cues. The team will test the games’ effectiveness using brain monitoring.

“Games already capture our attention—now we want to find out, can they train you to focus it?” Squire says. If the 18-month project is a success, the hope is that the games will be brought to market, potentially reaching a huge audience of young gamers.

Games might be particularly effective in social-emotional learning because they inherently encourage collaboration. “When we do classroom-based research on games, the teachers say it’s profoundly more social than anything else they do,” Squire says. To that end, the games he and Davidson are designing may be collaborative, or they will at least include social elements.

And the Gates Foundation gaming project isn’t the only one out there. E-Line Media, creators of the award-winning game-based learning platform Gamestar Mechanic, recently partnered with the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation’s Start Strong initiative to create a game that teaches middle-school students skills for healthy relationships. “The Real Robots of Robot High” is powered by the Gamestar Mechanic system, which lets kids play through complex scenarios and design their own games. The company plans to release the game in the fall.

“We’re driving toward 21st-century skills, higher-order skills, and effective collaboration as a way to empower youth to be positive change agents in their social circle,” says Michael Angst, CEO of E-Line Media. “We talked to teachers and got very strong feedback about focusing on critical thinking and problem-solving—not prescriptive solutions or advice. There’s a need for content that feels relevant to youth.”

Connecting Across the Globe

As schools try to meet kids where they already are—i.e., in games or on social networks—online social activities might also help kids forge personal bonds with kids from diverse walks of life, developing social awareness and skills such as empathy in the process. Where kids once had pen pals in other countries, they can now have video chats, or choose from any number of ways to communicate, in real time.

Howard Gardner, Harvard professor of cognition and education, as well as psychology, has studied the ethical character of young people’s activities in digital media in The GoodPlay Project, with support from the MacArthur Foundation. “There are suggestions that when one bonds to someone from afar, and discovers that they have quite different political or social views,” he says, “you may be more likely to be sympathetic to these hitherto alien views.”

And part of an online social-emotional education could be teaching norms about how to interact ethically and responsibly online, which many experts say are badly needed. Gardner has found that most youth have a “consequentialist approach” to digital media: If they think they will get caught and encounter negative consequences, they may stop engaging in risky behavior, but they don’t have a larger sense of responsibility.

“Often they belittle the importance of the media—’oh, it’s just online,’ ” Gardner says. “Yet it would be a mistake to blame young people for this. They lack impressive role models, and some of them say explicitly that they wish they had more mentoring on how to navigate cyberspace.”

Daniel Goleman, author of the bestseller “Emotional Intelligence” and cofounder of the Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning, has written about “cyber-disinhibition”—why we over-share online, for example—and says that it makes social-emotional learning more important in the online world.

Our Social Future

Researchers may be in the early stages of understanding how tech and social-emotional learning can work together, but most experts agree that social-emotional learning is essential in the digital age. In an era that prizes innovation and collaboration, it’s important that children grow up learning not only how to work with technology, but also how to work with each other in positive, productive ways.

“Where you’re seeing the push for social-emotional learning now is from the corporate leaders, who recognize that you cannot create new things without teams, and you cannot have effective teams without social-emotional competencies,” Ray says. “You can learn all the science there is to learn, but you can’t use that science to build the thing that gets to the moon unless you can work with other human beings.”

Liz Logan is the associate editor at Amplify. Her writing has appeared in Time, O, The Oprah Magazine, Editor & Publisher, Poets & Writers, and Time Out Chicago, among other publications. Most recently, she was an editor at Make It Better, a Chicago-area lifestyle magazine and website that she helped launch as a graduate student at Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism. She has received national writing and editing awards, and a fellowship from the National Press Foundation.

This article is commissioned by Amplify Education Inc. The views expressed are the author’s own and do not represent those of Amplify Education Inc.