Asha Susan Mani Image Credit: Supplied

Dubai: Apps are now stepping in where parents sometimes struggle — teaching children how to make friends and understand good or bad social behaviours. Children between the ages of five and 16 spend an average of six hours a day in front of a screen, according to UK-based research agency, Childwise. Terrible, but that is the truth. However, companies around the world are using this to children’s benefit. Smart apps have been created to help them learn emotional skills.

One such app is Allen Adventure, created by the Australian education authorities. In the form of a game, it allows children to navigate through various situations and deal with their emotions as they first go to school. Additionally, it presents difficult and sometimes inappropriate situations, such as bullying, and a child is given options to decide what he or she would do to deal with a similar scenario in real life.

Shama Mohammad, a business owner based in Abu Dhabi, is a mother of one daughter and in her opinion, such apps would have been beneficial when her daughter was growing up.

She said: “Parents are otherwise occupied these days with most of them working full time. Such apps should be available widely, especially today when children have access to the internet at the age of three. In their formative years, it would be helpful to have such exposure.”

A study published in the American Journal of Public Health shows a link between children’s social skills in their younger years and their well-being in adulthood. Additionally, children with social qualities are more likely to obtain higher education and go on to hold full-time jobs, whereas students who lack these skills are more likely to face negative outcomes by the age of 25. So, how are these smart apps helping in this process?

Karen Anne Hope Andrews, a clinical psychologist based in Dubai, explained that having social skills early on in life helps us build connections and networks, which contribute to our success later.

She said: “Low social and emotional skills mean that it’s harder to make friends and to ‘fit in’ to a specific context, which may have negative effects on self-esteem, may lead to emotional difficulties and even make a child more vulnerable to bullying or other kinds of negative social consequences.”

Both the bully and victim need intervention and support, stated Andrews, to assist them in developing better interpersonal relationships.

All behaviours are taught to some extent. The American Academy of Family Physicians states in a study that children have to be taught good behaviour so they can live and work well in society. Some things may come naturally to children, such as making friends, but “high level social skills are those that have been taught, applied and practised often” states Andrews.

She said: “For children, it is harder to adjust because they usually have less choice, less contribution to the decision-making process and it’s harder for them to express their feelings.”

If children are taught the art of communication, whether personally or with the help of smart apps, they are more likely to make friends easily and handle adjustment well.

From the moment a child is born, he or she starts to pick up social and emotional cues to be able to understand how to interact. Whether it is crying for food as an infant or forming two-word sentences as a toddler, children slowly develop the necessary skills or adaptive ways in which they positively communicate.

These social and emotional skills are an ongoing learning process, as stated by Joao Lourenco, a clinical psychologist and child specialist based in Dubai. In his opinion, people accommodate new methods of interacting based on their experiences.

He said: “Children are social beings with a natural preference for social interactions and the capacity to experience and express emotions, explore their world, develop and learn.”

In their early months, babies learn to relate to other people, stated Lourenco. They pick up skills by watching their parents and in the process learn to share and “experience the joy of social interactions”.

Research conducted by the US-based Institute for Learning and Brain Sciences showed that newborns pay more attention to things that you are looking at and are responsive to facial expressions and gestures. Additionally, an early social behaviour even allows them to learn new languages.

Dr Nida Hussain, a clinical psychologist based in Dubai, stated that as babies, “we begin to interpret what exactly it is we are seeing and why people may be engaging in a certain way”.

Between the age of 10 to 18 months, babies become more aware of new environments, according to Dr Hussain. This can “provoke feelings of discomfort”.

She said: “Since language, memory and coping skills are at the early stages of development, a child does not necessarily understand how to adjust to new situations resulting in more reserved interactions.”

However, as a child’s social interactions increase and further development of the brain takes place, a child’s understanding of social interaction becomes wider. Smart apps help in this development by creating social scenarios similar to real life.

However, many factors, such as delayed cognitive development and mental health concerns, can play a role in the progression of social skills as stated by the Child Study Center, a US-based nonprofit organisation. Children with autism, for example, find great difficulty in communicating and forming relationships.

Asha Susan Mani, an autism and behavioural consultant based in Sharjah, believes that social skills training for autistic children is very important.

She said: “Behavioural interventions are used for children with autism. This involves teaching specific social behaviours, such as making eye contact, touching and sharing.”

She recommends group time, involving games and fun activities, as it is highly effective in developing social skills. “Once they begin to participate in activities, isolated children will interact with their peers during free play, too,” she added.