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Are there apps or tech tools to help kids develop socially?

Topics: Learning

There are a variety of technologies that can help kids develop socially. Just by being digitally connected -- through email, multiplayer games, video-chatting, texting, or photo-sharing, for example -- kids get to practice social interactions, learn the ins and outs of texting protocol, and even bond. Of course, it's important to use technology in balance with other activities. Kids who use too much technology can also struggle socially.

It's not known whether technology is the cause of kids' social issues or whether people who have social problems sometimes end up using more technology. If you're worried that your kid might have trouble having face-to-face conversations because of too much technology use, set some limits. Offer your child more opportunities for conversations by creating media-free times and zones. Plan a weekly schedule that includes a mix of healthy activities. But if you feel your kid could benefit from connecting with others using technology, here's an overview of what tools are available, how your kids can use them, and general age guidelines:

Email. Email allows kids who are verbal or nonverbal an opportunity to communicate and practice writing with less demand on their handwriting skills. Kids as young as first grade can learn how to email to build connections with classmates outside of school, stay in touch with friends at different schools, and connect with family.

Smartphones. With plenty of adult support -- and depending on your kids' maturity and abilities -- kids can gradually build a full awareness of what's expected with smartphones. Some kids with special needs have many friends, but some have only one or two, so using a phone to text, call, or FaceTime a friend who may not be in the same school or state can help maintain those meaningful connections.

Tablets. Two-person games can help kids learn to take turns -- but only encourage it if the kids are amenable to sharing. (Many kids, whether or not they have special needs, can become extremely absorbed in a game and strenuously resist turn-taking.) A few games that encourage sharing are:

Social media. For older tweens and teens, social media can help with social anxiety. Kids also can practice social skills with the relative distance and time delay afforded by social media. In general, kids with social challenges will need even more guidance and check-ins on social media use over a much longer span of time than typical kids do. It's not easy for anyone to understand the hidden social rules of social media, but, if a child has extra work to do on perspective taking, impulse control, or other common challenges with special needs, parents can safely assume they will need to invest a good deal of time in supporting this effort. It's well worth it, because tweens and teens who don't use social media are out of the loop, missing out on the common social currency of teen life.

Gaming systems. Get more than one controller for your Wii, Xbox, PlayStation, or other game machine. Some games to try:

  • For younger kids, dance games that have a built-in social component, rather than the standard turn-taking of regular games, can be beneficial. It's great if the game records the action. Kids who are on the autism spectrum, in particular, benefit from the visual feedback of actually seeing themselves in a group of kids having a great time.
  • Multiplayer games such as New Super Mario Bros and Minecraft require cooperation and a lot of back-and-forth communication while relieving some of the pressure of reading facial expressions and making eye contact.
  • Sports games also often feature a natural point for turn-taking, and, for kids with slowly developing motor skills, there can sometimes be less performance anxiety with a screen-based game than in real life in front of teammates, coaches, and parents.

Multiplayer games. Belonging to a gaming community, playing against -- and with -- others, and being able to talk about common gaming interests can be a real lifeline of social connection for some teens with special needs.

Games such as World of Warcraft, StarCraft, and Guild Wars can provide quality -- albeit virtual -- interactions and are beneficial so long as kids also keep up on their real-world experiences.

There's also a variety of programs specifically designed to help kids as young as 2 develop social awareness, emotional intelligence, empathy, and coping strategies. Here are a few to try:

  • Sago Mini Friends, age 2+

    Sago Mini Friends lets very young app users explore and play in some of the same ways they play with friends.
  • Daniel Tiger's Grr-ific Feelings, age 3+

    With Daniel Tiger's help, kids identify and express emotions through fun games and songs.
  • Social Adventures, age 5+

    Created by speech and occupational therapists, Social Adventures is an activity app for kids who need help thinking about social situations and acting appropriately in them.
  • My DPS, age 6+

    My DPS ("My Digital Problem Solver") focuses on identifying a variety of emotions through facial expressions, body language, and written as well as spoken language, and it suggests coping strategies to deal with a range of social situations.
  • IF... The Emotional IQ Game, age 8+

    With the help of a wise Zen-like master, kids think about and exercise choices related to core social- and emotional-learning (SEL) skills such as gratitude, helpfulness, and regulation of fear.
  • Middle School Confidential 1: Be Confident in Who You Are and Middle School Confidential 2: Real Friends vs the Other Kind, age 11+

    These app-based graphic novels teach kids how to handle and keep friends.
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