Prioritizing the Social and Emotional Learning in Students' Digital Lives During the Pandemic

The intersection of SEL and digital citizenship supports students’ unique digital challenges.

There is no doubt that the last 18 months have taken a tremendous toll on students' mental health and wellbeing as they adjusted to drastic changes in their schools and communities. As we continue to navigate the ever-evolving hurdles of this pandemic and gear up for a new school year, educators recognize the importance of supporting students' social and emotional wellbeing, understanding that it's fundamental to academic success.

When thinking about social and emotional learning, it's important to acknowledge the ways in which young people are interacting, learning, and communicating with one another. If it wasn't already the case, the pandemic cemented the role of media and technology in young peoples' lives as they learned to navigate Zoom classes, maintained connections with friends and family, and navigated a sea of fast-changing information about the world. The digital context in which young people are interacting is core to their life experiences, emotions, relationships, and identity development and is something schools will want to address as they enter the new school year. As a result, the social and emotional wellbeing of students, particularly in and around the digital world, must be a priority for both educators and families.

Uncertain Environment

One of the most immediate concerns teachers and school districts are dealing with is the conflicting guidance around the Delta variant. Just when everyone thought things would look a bit more "normal" by the start of the new school year with in-person learning, we're now dealing with conflicting messaging, policies, and continued uncertainty on how school will look in the coming months. This uncertain environment will require flexibility and resiliency. The social and emotional implications for young people will continue to be a priority across all learning environments. While social and emotional learning (SEL) is already a priority in many schools, the evolving influences of COVID variants will require a flexibility to adapt SEL for a socially distant classroom setting, hybrid or remote learning as well. Technology will continue to play an important role in students’ various learning environments. But how do students apply social-emotional competencies in the digital world? Schools will need to support students specifically in this area, as students increasingly use technology for learning and life.

Mental Health

After a difficult year, educators must be mindful of the struggles students will have transitioning back to school and back to socializing in and around classrooms. These struggles may include experience with illness and death in families, isolation and loneliness, inadequate access to school resources, or poverty and job loss. Students have been through a lot, and there’s a great need for additional support from schools. In addition, students are participating in a polarized, contentious, and confusing online environment, whether it’s media they’re consuming or interacting with on social media. In our Common Sense research, we found that teens and young adults are exposed to more hate speech than ever before on social media platforms, and the content they are exposed to tends to be targeted at them by their race, gender, and/or sexual orientation. The frequency with which young people reported encountering hateful content online has nearly doubled in the last two years (from 12% to 23%). Furthermore, the problem with disinformation and misinformation on the internet and social media is a huge problem, so much so that U.S. Surgeon General Vivek Murthy has declared it a “serious threat to public health.” Meanwhile, 38% of all 14- to 22-year-olds report symptoms of moderate to severe depression, up from 25% in 2018. These unique challenges highlight the importance of not just teaching SEL but also digital citizenship: the responsible use of technology to learn, create, and participate.

School Investments

This past year also brought an infusion of funds from the stimulus package and Emergency Connectivity Fund, where schools are investing in devices and infrastructure to help get all students online and connected for learning. While acquiring technology is important to address opportunity gaps, effective technology integration requires that schools invest in supporting students’ wellbeing with digital citizenship and SEL skills to use devices responsibly, and to better manage the impact of media and tech in their lives. This, in turn, can improve academic performance, decrease conflict between students, and help students feel more invested in their school communities.


Technology's impact on students' social and emotional wellbeing can vary across age and levels of development, so implementation of social-emotional learning for students’ digital lives can vary widely. SEL in Digital Life resources, such as CASEL-aligned short lessons, family conversation starters, and teacher training are a great place to start. Here are some best practices to keep in mind:

  • Make time for SEL: We know educators have a ton on their plates, but SEL doesn’t have to be a huge time commitment. Even 10 or 15 minutes a couple times per week to do a “gut check” in with your students on their feelings, how their day is going, and if they are experiencing any challenges can add up as important support throughout the school year. Look for CASEL-aligned resources to address the five core competencies of SEL.

  • Classroom Culture: Establish a positive classroom culture around digital citizenship and SEL at the start of the year. Set expectations with students — which you can do collaboratively — on norms regarding their self-management, self-awareness, relationship skills, and more both in-person and online. Ask them how they want to be responsible for themselves and others as they learn, communicate, and work together. You can revisit and level-set these expectations throughout the year, especially if conditions around in-person and remote learning may change.

  • Family Engagement: Parents and caregivers are looking to schools for advice on supporting their child’s technology use. Caregivers are an essential piece of guiding children with SEL and digital citizenship, to help reinforce what is taught in the classroom, and have deeper conversations on kids’ experiences in their digital lives.

As we look forward to the coming school year, prioritizing social and emotional wellbeing in students' digital lives is an important foundation to help them thrive as learners in an ever-changing environment.

About the Author

Kelly Mendoza is Vice President of Education Programs at Common Sense Education. She has experience developing research-based curricula in social-emotional learning (SEL), digital citizenship, media literacy. Kelly works with teams to build curricula, games, and professional learning products from the ground-up. She develops resources that help students, parents, and educators thrive in a world of media and technology, and that help schools create a positive culture around learning and technology. She has developed education resources and curricula for Classroom Champions, Resilient Educator, Lucas Learning, Media Education Lab, and PBS Frontline. Kelly has a Ph.D. in Media and Communication from Temple University.