The Best Apps and Games for Social Emotional Learning (SEL) and Positive Psychology in Teenagers

Twenty-first century teenagers may be more sophisticated than their parents and grandparents when it comes to understanding their world and themselves. They are more apt to ask questions about how they can improve themselves, help others, and reach their potential. Twenty-first century teens are more attuned to the needs of others in the global community and place great value on communication with their peers. These questions and qualities underlie the skills of social emotional learning and positive psychology in teenagers.

Historically, social emotional learning (SEL) and positive psychology skills were taught and modeled by parents and other adults. In our digital world, psychologists are beginning to explore how apps and video games can be used to promote social emotional learning and positive psychology in teenagers.

The decision to use technology to facilitate these vital skills that help teens to be resilient to stress; display signs of kindness, compassion, and cooperation with others; and exhibit self-control and the capacity to manage their lives is quite simple. After all, teens spend much of their energy and resources engaged with their mobile devices, on social media, and in their online lives. Much of their learning takes place via technology. While there are many excellent self-help books that can improve social emotional learning and executive-functioning skills for teens (including my book Train Your Brain for Success: A Teenager’s Guide to to Executive Functions), most of them are not bestsellers. Teens are far more apt to seek out technologies for help than to read books on self-improvement.

Fortunately there are some powerful games and apps that practice or support social emotional learning (SEL) and positive psychology skills through game play. The vast majority of these games and apps are not designed with positive psychology principles such as  hopefulness, gratitude, optimism,  grit, mindfulness, zest, and self-improvement in mind, but many can be used to help teenagers become more resilient, self-motivated, and insightful.

Because publishers have not produced games and apps with positive psychology principles in mind, these may be hard to identify. Fortunately, many of the core characteristics of social emotional learning (SEL) and positive psychology intersect with executive-functioning skills. So, many of our LW4K guides that have targeted games and apps that practice skills such as self- awareness, planning, flexibility, and self-control are in fact identifying positive psychology traits.

Here are some of our favorites apps and games to promote social emotional learning (SEL) and positive psychology in teenagers:

Screenshot from Gone Home, a video game that teachers kids empathy and resilience

Gone Home allows players explore a spooky house while encouraging them to explore the concepts of self-assessment, empathy, and resilience.

Gone Home. This award-winning video game is a quiet first-person exploration that emphasizes important SEL and positive psychology skill. Players explore the concepts of reflection, self-assessment, empathy, hope, and resilience as they explore the main character’s deserted home. Searching for clues to her missing family, she finds once-familiar rooms full of secrets. Your teen will not only love Gone Home’s mature story and interesting characters, they’ll gain a sense of responsibility and accomplishment that comes with player-driven gameplay.

Never Alone. Your adolescent will appreciate a video game with the cozy familiarity of a platformer that manages to push them out of their comfort zone. With challenging gameplay and content, Never Alone manages to tell an important historical tale that translates across cultures. Created in cooperation with the indigenous Iñupiaq of Alaska, Never Alone helps your teen see beyond themselves to learn about and appreciate the resilience of a people who have endured innumerable hardships. As players progress through the game, they unlock bonus content about the Iñupiaq culture — furthering SEL and positive psychology practice with lessons in grit and empathy.

Smiling Mind was designed with the help of psychologists and other health professionals to help users be more mindful. A person who is mindful is completely present in the moment and operating at their full potential. Teens benefit from this app which includes meditations for all age groups, from young children to adults. Teaching a teen to step back and take perspective on themselves and things outside of themselves is invaluable SEL and positive psychology practice.

SuperBetter. SuperBetter is like a video game for life, helping users achieve personal goals by allowing them to make everyday chores and responsibilities into quests and missions. Drinking more water, exercising, avoiding unhealthy foods and habits, calling a friend, writing a letter, taking a bike ride — anything a user needs to work on, they can find some outside accountability and video-game-style immediate rewards in SuperBetter. “Leveling up” as a person using SuperBetter can give kids good metacognitive and social awareness practice.

Minecraft: Story Mode. With its rampant popularity and star-studded cast, Minecraft: Story Mode is easy to view as a piece of popular culture fluff. But hidden inside this point-and-click game with hectic button-mashing quicktime events is a true-to-life lesson in consequences. The choices a player makes in Minecraft: Story Mode affect the game in many ways, giving them practice with social awareness and self-assessment. As in life, in-game conversations a player has offer them a brief period to choose responses, and the outcomes of these conversations have a lasting effect on the game. Players will find themselves asking: Did I say the right thing? Was that a little too harsh? Is that what I really want to do? This allows parents to point out that, unlike a video game, life has no reset button.

Read more about the self-awareness thinking skill, the importance of soft skills like SEL and positive psychology, and find more video games and apps that practice these skills right here at LW4K.



Featured image: Flickr user Aidan Jones

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