Healthy Technology Habits for Kids – SEL and Gaming

Healthy Technology Habits for Kids – SEL and Gaming

6 April 2022 • Words by Allison Henry 6 mins

Matthew Farber, Ed.D. is an Assistant Professor of Educational Technology at the University of Northern Colorado and the founder of the Gaming SEL Lab. His research is at the intersection of game-based learning (GBL) and social and emotional learning (SEL). He studies how healthy technology habits for kids, specifically games, can teach empathy, perspective-taking, and ethical decision-making. He also works in youth initiatives around game design as a form of self-expression. 

Allison Henry, Head of Schools at Moshi, and Dr. Matthew Farber sat down together to talk about SEL and gaming.

Allison: How would you coach teachers and parents to balance SEL and gaming, two of the most talked-about topics that are relevant to children?

Matthew: Okay, so the first part is SEL. A couple of things as a starting point. Wordle. Big craze, right? Most of us are playing and it is a single-player experience, where you are cloistered off in this clean webpage with no ads, no pop-ups, nothing. It’s almost like opening up the crosswords or jumbles in a newspaper and playing a game and then sharing your outcome with others, with those little color blocks.

And that is kind of a communal experience—we’re all doing this thing together and it’s fun. Any time I see people who profess not to be gamers sharing Wordle scores online, it reminds me of everybody playing Animal Crossing, or everybody playing Pokemon Go when that started. And I think that’s really important. It moves me, actually, it’s a warming feeling. Because human beings are innately evolved to play. We learn through playing, and playing is inherently social.  If you watch the Super Bowl and you talk about it the next day, that is a social experience. Sharing things online, watching sports, but also playing video games or playing Wordle—are all different play activities. And they are important to the human experience. You could argue they’re more important now than ever because of the pandemic. It’s a way that we connect as people. That’s what we do.

We play games as a family all the time. We’ve been playing Sushi Go Party, which is a terrific family game. I highly recommend it. My son’s been building Encanto in Minecraft, the entire set. And then he and his friends play hide and seek in multiplayer mode in Minecraft with Google Meet on with the cameras off.

We also play a game together on Xbox. Well, he does and I watch. It’s a game called Unpacking and you’re unpacking boxes. It starts off in 1997 when you’re a younger girl in your bedroom and you’re just unpacking boxes. And you see the objects of that person’s life. And then it moves to 2004 when she’s going to college. So you’re unpacking her dorm. Then her first apartment, then her apartment with her boyfriend. Then two years later back to her parents’ house because we can infer they broke up. And then back again to her own place by herself, and so on. It’s a really deep way of telling environmental stories.

Allison: Let’s talk about how gaming has changed over the years. What has changed since we were kids?

Matthew:  Games are much different now than they were 30 or 40 years ago. Some people think about games as just children’s activities when actually the average age of a video game player in the US today is 35 years old. 216 million people play video games in the United States. But there is a bit of stigmatization and new media bias toward some types of video games. I don’t think it’s proper to stigmatize somebody’s hobbies. If somebody is playing a video game for an hour, or two or three hours, some people might scream out “screen addiction” and alarms go off. But if somebody is watching Sunday football for six hours, they’re just football fans.

Allison: What’s the research behind gaming and its benefits?

Matthew: We need to regulate our brains. And this is research that goes back to the 1980s, not with games but now it’s part of games and well-being research. There are two types of games and media. The first type is hedonic, which comes from the word “hedonism” and it’s from media psychology. That’s like Mario Kart and Candy Crush. Because when you’re in school all day, you need some pure, escapist diversion. If you’re going to pull a screen away from a kid, even if it’s Netflix or their phone, you’re robbing them of what’s called mood management theory.

The other type of game and media is called eudaimonic. Aristotle created that term. Eudaimonic is media that inspires awe, thinking about the human condition. And we can’t just consume that all the time either—it can have a pretty serious turn, like the game Unpacking I described. And there’s another game my son’s been playing on Apple Arcade called Mini Motorways, where you want to make the most effective commutes for people to drive home. It’s a strategy game, like chess, sort of. You’ve really got to think about what you’re doing. He can’t play that all the time. He’s going to want to play Temple Run or something else to balance out. So it’s never about the screen, it’s always about mood management theory. Once moods are regulated and managed, other activities can occur. And mood management does not require screens either, as music and books and hiking regulate mood too. It’s more about being deliberate and reflective.

Another concept that my research is informed by is called joint media engagement. Really, all it means is that parents need to have conversations with kids about what they are doing on their devices. It used to be called co-viewing when it was on TV. Now that the TV is in your pocket, you have this conversation with your kids about what’s going on.

Allison: Oh, I never thought about it like that. My second-grader, she’s the type of kid who somersaults up the stairs and does headstands all the time. And this morning she just wanted to lay in bed and play her game on the iPad. I told her no more screen time, but I think she was managing her mood. How do you manage technology use with your son?

Matthew: We took a screen neutral approach. We don’t have any limits except when he goes to bed when we take the iPad away. We got him an iPad at five, not before. And it’s not because we were technophobes by any means, he just didn’t care. We put on Disney Junior when he was three. No interest. He wouldn’t sit through a movie until he was maybe eight.

But he can be in his room drawing all the time. I can go into his room at any given time of day, and his iPad will be on the floor and he’ll be drawing or making papercrafts. One of his favorite YouTube channels is called Art for Kids Hub. And it’s really games. It’s an art teacher in Utah and his kids, and they draw pictures,  and you’re watching and following along. They don’t often talk about that with screen time. It’s always like, “Awesome zombie staring at your screen.”

Art for Kids Hub to me is like watching a cooking show. Do this, hit pause, draw the thing—like that. And how do I say no when he screencasts on his iPad a video walkthrough of Encanto? He takes the screencast and photos, imports them to iMovie, edits it, imports sound, and then uploads it to his YouTube channel. Isn’t that what you want somebody to be doing? It’s like project-based learning on your own. I think there are a lot of negative unintended consequences when we harp on screen time. 

Allison: Right, because if you set a limit too far in one direction, then it’ll make them want to even more, especially when they’re deprived of it.

Matthew: Exactly. Right. Another one is GeoGuesser, which is a game I used to play when I taught social studies. It literally drops you in a location on Google Maps and you have to figure out where you are. But interestingly, video game streamers on Twitch and on YouTube had been playing GeoGuesser, so my son got more interested in that. He asked me to put that on his iPad, which I did.  You have to use context clues. So he looks at the plants, he tries to read the license plates, and he looks at the signs that are around. Then he has to make his guess on the map, and he gets points based on how close he is. And it’s building his geographical knowledge. Am I going to tell him not to do that? Put that screen away, you’ve hit your two-hour limit. Stop learning!

Allison: Is there anything else you say to parents and teachers? 

Matthew: If you’re talking to your kids about gaming, you may realize you have something in common. Maybe your kid wants to play Wordle with you and you talk about that. Maybe you put Minecraft on your phone and you join their world and you get a tour of what they’re doing. I think that is a way more meaningful experience for them than penalizing them for really trying to make connections and to learn about their world.

Fred Rogers embraced that TV is here so we need to make it a tool for good. Gaming is here, phones are here, iPads are here, Roblox is here. How do we harness these to be tools for good?

To read more about SEL and gaming and Dr. Farber’s work on this topic,  check out his website and most recent book, Gaming SEL.

Allison Henry