January 30, 2018 13:42:57

Children are failing to develop basic social skills due to excessive screen time and leaving them prone to friendship problems, a child psychologist has warned.

Wollongong psychologist Dr Kimberley O’Brien previously operated like a private detective in schools — hired by parents to come in and observe their children to understand why they were having trouble making friends.

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She described what she saw at lunch and recess as “a battlefield” of fighting that would often go beyond the rough and tumble of playtime and crossing over into bullying.

Above all, she saw a general lack of social skills, and as children spend more hours in front of a screen — even if they are communicating with each other — their social skills were dwindling.

“What we’ve found is more kids are using screen time to socialise. When they do that they might be talking online, but we’ve had a spike of kids not wanting to go to school because they’ve spent too much time online and not in a social context,” she said.

“It takes skills to walk by a busy group of kids, make eye contact, or sidle-up to someone and say ‘hello’.

“These are skills not everyone has and even adults get rusty with social skills. So by breaking it down, normalising it and giving them a place to practice it, we see great results.”

Program helps teach basic social skills

Dr O’Brien devised a program called Best of Friends, which she had been teaching for years at her clinic, and now wants to see it reach as many students as possible in an expansion as a school program.

To ensure it was suitable and effective she brought in University of Wollongong education lecturer Dr Noelene Weatherby-Fell to evaluate the program.

“I see it as an amazing and wonderful resource, and that won’t determine what we find in the evaluation,” Dr Weatherby-Fell said.

“But looking at it as a teacher educator, it will support and supplement resources being used in schools to establish relationship skills in children.”

The research study will see 64 young people from 7-11 years of age participate in a weekly one-hour workshop during terms one and two.

The program features stories about friendship, role plays, craft activities and fieldwork for home and school.

Dr Weatherby-Fell said becoming a good friend is not an innate ability and developing social skills has become a major focus for primary educators.

Young people need skills feedback

A side effect of parents working longer hours is that children are not getting enough feedback on how their social skills are developing.

“Kids spend a lot of time socialising and not getting feedback on their social skills,” Dr O’Brien said.

“Parents aren’t watching kids on playdates, but when you observe kids there’s always lots of room for improvement.”

Dr O’Brien’s tips for kids’ social skills

  • Don’t interrupt people when they are talking
  • Be aware of body language and do not have your back to people when talking
  • Encourage empathy
  • Be a good host — offer people a drink or a seat at a party

She said pilot studies in her clinic have returned positive results, but having the university evaluate it will add credibility to the program.

Broadening it to a school setting aims to see more students develop vital social skills which could help reduce bullying.

“I guess this is around prevention and starting early,” Dr O’Brien said.

“With kids aged 7-11 years, we can teach kids about being inclusive, resolving conflict, talking about their feelings and being heard.”










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