Digital Mental Health in the Era of Techlash: Towards Humane Health Technology

Note to readers: This is a long-ish read (closer to 15 rather than 5 minutes)

As someone who studies mental health, I rarely stop to ask myself about its definition. Yet, definition is increasingly at the front of my mind when I think about the field of digital mental health.

I know all the modern textbook definitions, but find myself drawn to a definition that was put forward over 60 years ago by Erich Fromm in his book The Sane Society. One of the founders of what would come to be known as Humanistic Psychology, Fromm wrote “Mental health is characterized by the ability to love and to create, ….by a sense of identity based on one’s experience of self as the subject and agent of one’s powers, [and] by the grasp of reality inside and outside of ourselves, that is, by the development of objectivity and reason.”

I love this definition because of its focus on what seems to me to really make us human: loving, creating, and having a desire for knowledge. The field of digital mental health is moving forward at a breakneck speed without considering the basic question of how it might promote – or disrupt – these building blocks of a sane and humane society and of our individual mental health within it. Moreover, it is developing in a world of obsessive social media use, mobile phone addiction, fake news, digital data insecurity, internet trolls, and the Uber-fication of human service industries, all of which serve a single, primary objective of absolute efficiency – getting what we want as quickly and easily as possible at all times.

Here I highlight key challenges we face in creating humane and effective health technology in a toxic digital ecosystem, lay out a four-point road map, and, as a case study, describe the development of a micro-intervention app for stress- and anxiety-reduction I developed called Personal Zen.

The Promise of Digital Mental Health

The potential payoffs of digital mental health are of crucial importance now. We are facing an ever-growing mental health epidemic in the US and around the world. Over half of us will be diagnosed with a mental health disorder in our lifetime. And our kids are struggling. Approximately one in every 4–5 youth in the U.S. meets criteria for a mental disorder with severe impairment, and the vast majority of mental health disorders in adults first emerge in childhood and adolescence.

The particular promise of computerized and mobile interventions are that they can, if done properly, radically increase the availability and accessibility of empirically-validated treatments, while reducing cost and stigma.

The Toxic Digital Ecosystem and Techlash

We’re used to believing, with true tech-enthusiasm, that if only we can “disrupt” current healthcare delivery systems, we can solve all our problems. But we now realize with growing certainty that what the digital ecosystem truly excels at is making money for technology companies and pushing us towards ever-greater efficiency. It does this so well because it is precisely and purposefully designed to grab our attention, addict us, and keep us glued to our screens: This is the basis of the attention and surveillance economies. The result of this design focus is that digital technology exhausts us, distracts us, and detracts from our ability to do other things.

Awareness of this has caused the pendulum to swing the other way, and we’ve entered an era of “tech-lash” with growing outcry about mobile phone addiction, negative effects of social media on youth mental health, data security, the spread of fake news, unethical business practices, and the list goes on. We are angry at Silicon Valley because these powerful companies created ubiquitous products and put profit so far above our well-being, that it’s unclear what to do about it.

Such is the degree of techlash now that even scientists are seeing causation in correlation before solid facts are established. In 2017, researchers, usually a circumspect bunch, went so far as to suggest in the popular media that smartphones have psychologically destroyed a generation of youth, citing among other findings that during the period following the birth of the iPhone about 10 years ago, we have seen a doubling of suicide rates and increases in depression and anxiety across vast segments of society.

In its annual survey of students, the American College Health Association found a significant increase — to 62 percent in 2016 from 50 percent in 2011 — of undergraduates reporting “overwhelming anxiety” in the previous year. Surveys that look at experiences related to anxiety are also telling. In 1985, the Higher Education Research Institute at U.C.L.A. began asking incoming college freshmen if they “felt overwhelmed by all I had to do” during the previous year. In 1985, 18 percent said they did. By 2010, that number had increased to 29 percent. Last year, it surged to 41 percent. These are alarming statistics, but is this enough evidence that smartphones are causing these problems?

I believe not. I have come to doubt conventional wisdom that smartphones or social media are a unique cause of anxiety, depression, or suicide; instead, I see them as a factor among many. By primarily “blaming the machines” we obscure the impact of other factors of equal or perhaps greater importance, and lose opportunities to deeply examine a range of factors and how they might work together with digital technology to contribute to the suffering of youth and adults.

As the evidence comes in, how do we work in an arguably toxic digital ecosystem to ensure that – for adults and children – health technology heals rather than harms?

A Four-Point Road Map for Humane Digital Mental Health Technology

For health technology to be truly humane, it must meet these four criteria:

  1. Prioritize development of micro-interventions. An irony of digital mental health is that the well-honed attention economy techniques that keep people glued to screens will work against mental health promotion. Therefore, focus should be on creating micro-interventions that require as little screen time as possible. Micro-interventions are brief and frequent, easily fitting into a person’s routine at home or on-the-go. They are part of the broader spectrum of care, with low-intensity preventative or “gateway” treatments at one end and intensive stand-alone treatments on the other end. Development efforts in health technology should be focused now on the low-intensity end of the spectrum. Later, once a strong evidence base is built, resources should then be devoted across the spectrum to develop more intensive, resource-heavy and stand-alone treatments. Spectrum of careThis strategy is largely reversed in digital healthcare right now. Many companies are trying to digitize gold-standard treatments like cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), which remains time-consuming and expensive. Moreover, it remains unclear whether CBT is effective in digital or telemedicine format. Making poorly-validated treatments widely available does not solve the mental healthcare crisis.

 

  1. Maximize high accessibility. Along with the development of brief, micro-interventions, digital mental health must be qualitatively more accessible than current treatment delivery systems – affordable, easy to access, used on-the-go, and engaging. Current psychological treatments are often time-consuming and expensive. Of the over 160 million Americans who will have mental health problems in their lifetime, 50% of us don’t seek any treatment with 44% of these untreated patients citing price as a barrier. Basic access is also highly limited – over 83 million Americans live in federally-designated Mental Health Professional Shortage Areas.

 

  1. Reduce stigma. The stigma of mental illness represents a significant barrier to mental healthcare access. Of the tens of millions of untreated Americans struggling with mental health, 10% cite the stigma of mental illness – and fearing others will find out – as a primary barrier. A benefit of digital and mobile mental health interventions is that when we access mental wellness tools on our devices, they become part of our enjoyable and daily digital lives, increasing the possibility of normalization. Developers can also aim to create interventions that are fun and engaging, rather than having the clinical and medical feel that might turn people away from seeking help in the first place.

 

  1. Make adaptive and personalized. The promise of machine learning, artificial intelligence, and big data for solving health problems are immense. The most sophisticated techniques for data generation and gathering have been used in the worlds of advertising and politics, but these emerging techniques have already made waves in terms of medical diagnosis and risk assessment. In mental health, the ability to dynamically evaluate a treatment target and personalize interventions accordingly are the future of mental healthcare. At this stage, few research-based mental health tools have built-in adaptive methods. This is among the most important areas in which academia and industry must come together, one that holds perhaps the greatest promise for true personalization of treatment.

Summary: Development of humane and effective digital mental health technology must optimize the accessibility and mobility of digital technology, shift focus towards brief, flexible, and personalized interventions, and reduce screen time in order to step off the attention economy treadmill.  This approach minimizes the harmful aspects of the digital ecosystem while capitalizing on its nimble, accessible, and stigma-reducing aspects.

Finding Personal Zen

I had the idea of humane health technology as a guiding principle when I created the app Personal Zen. Personal Zen is a stress- and anxiety-reduction exercise. The app embeds scientifically-based attention training techniques into an engaging and appealing format. Its scientific “active ingredient” is something called attention bias modification.

Attention biases are rigid and selective ways of paying attention to information in the world. Decades of research tell us that people who tend to be anxious or stressed detect negative information more quickly, and pay attention to it longer and intensely than people who are relatively less anxious and stressed.

This preference to pay attention to the negative is called the threat bias.  And here’s the kicker: The threat bias piggybacks on one of the triumphs of evolution – the ability to quickly and automatically notice danger, which in turn triggers us to fight or take flight to deal with the danger. But the threat bias highjacks and skews this evolutionary advantage. It acts as an unconscious information filter, an imbalance in what we pay attention to that makes us actually prefer and prioritize threat and negativity at the expense of the positive. When the threat bias becomes a rigid habit of looking at the world, it puts our fight/flight response on a hair trigger, and sky-rockets our feelings of stress and anxiety. We see monsters in the closet even when they’re not there.

Personal Zen is designed to retrain our attention to disengage from the negative in flexible ways so that we can better benefit from positive information all around us. This creates a stronger attention filter favoring the positive. As a micro-intervention, it was designed to be used briefly and on-the-go, so it can fit into anyone’s daily routine.

Findings suggest that this technique loosens the vicious cycle of stress and anxiety, immediately reducing distress as well as laying the groundwork for positive change. We’ve published three clinical trials of Personal Zen showing that even with short-term use, Personal Zen can reduce stress and anxiety. We’ve recently focused on the potential benefits of Personal Zen for a group of people in particular need of easy-to-access stress-reduction tools that can fit into their busy lives – pregnant women – and found that using Personal Zen for about 30 minutes a week for a month reduced the stress hormone cortisol. While much more work needs to be done, I believe that with this approach, we’re on the right track.

The Future is Now

The field of digital mental health is skyrocketing at a time when there are compelling arguments to reduce screen time. Humane digital mental healthcare must navigate this contradiction while taking the best that digital technology has to offer to actively promote the essence of mental health in us all: the ability to love and create, to have an empowered sense of self, and to embrace objectivity and reason. It’s up to us all, researchers, developers, and healthcare professionals, to get this right.

Blog Post for Psychology Today – Can’t Fight This Feeling: Technology and Teen Anxiety

Social media and digital technology must have an impact on our emotional lives because our social lives—whether analog or digital—always do. In my recent article for Psychology Today, I write about why we must move beyond “Is there an impact?” to “How, Why, and under What conditions is there an impact?”. Read the full article here.

Blast from The Past: The Day My Three-Year-Old Discovered Multitasking

Today we’re revisiting a post from a few years ago “The Day My Three-Year-Old Discovered Multitasking”:

I recently overheard a conversation between my three-year-old son, Kavi, and my husband. Kavi was about to go to bed and had only a couple minutes left to play. Dada asked him to choose how he wanted to spend his remaining time. Kavi said, “I have a great idea, dada! I can play iPad AND play Legos at the same time!!!”

Hoo boy, I thought. My son is becoming a multitasker at age three. Already dissatisfied with the pleasure of any single activity, he is trying to divide his attention between two things (one of which is a mobile device) thinking it will be more fun and he won’t have to miss out. Is this an expression of the dreaded FOMO, fear of missing out, rearing its head so early?

And thus followed a mental checklist of my potential parenting failures. Two stand out:

  1. I multitask too much in front of him. I am definitely a multitasker, but one who makes strong efforts to put away my devices when I am with my family. I don’t always succeed, so have I become a bad role model?
  2. I don’t encourage him to enjoy the process of doing and learning. As I’ve blogged about before, one way of thinking about styles of learning is making the following distinction: we can focus on and enjoy the process of learning, or we can learn with the goal of obtaining rewards (praise, grades, etc,…). If Kavi is so interested in multitasking, perhaps this is because he doesn’t fully enjoy the process of doing a single activity.

Then I thought on a more hopeful note, maybe I’ve done something very right, teaching him 21st century skills and facilitating his mental acuity:

  1. Multitasking in moderation is useful! Certainly, at this moment in time, people could be at a disadvantage if they are not able to take advantage of multitasking opportunities to gather information, learn, or accomplish goals – in moderation. So, the fact that it occurred to him to multitask two things he likes to do could simply indicate that his cognitive development is moving along nicely.
  2.  Maybe he is learning to augment his creativity via technology. Perhaps his thought was – well, I’m hitting a wall with new things to build with Legos so maybe I can use the iPad to come up with more ideas. But who knows what he was thinking. So I asked him.

The conversation went something like this:

Me: Hey sweetie, do you remember when you told daddy that you wanted to play iPad and Legos and the same time?

Kavi: mumbles something.

Me: What’s that?

Kavi: Yes, I think so.

Me: Why did you want to do iPad and Legos at the same time?

Kavi:  Because it’s the same kind of fun.

Me: The same kind of fun?

Kavi:  Yes. First you do iPad, then you do Legos. iPad, Legos, iPad, Legos….

Me:  But you also play Legos alone, just Legos.

Kavi: But that would be boring!

Me: Really? I see you do that all the time.

Kavi: Yes…..

At this point, I decided to drop it. So, what does this little bit of anecdotal evidence mean? I have no idea. But I think the bottom line is that I know my son and I’m not too worried. He is already quite good at focusing for long periods of time (he can build with Legos for hours if you let him). Perhaps, though, there is something I can do better. I could focus more on promoting his JOMO  – the joy of missing out. It’s the feeling that what you’re doing right now, at this moment, is exactly the perfect thing to do.

 

Is Your Child Using Devices Too Much? Apply the Delight Principle

Many of us parents worry about the potential negative effects of technology – particularly mobile technology – on our children. But we have precious little science out there that can help us figure out the costs and benefits, risks and returns. Heck, we’ve had television sets in our homes for over 80 years and we still don’t know a lot about its effects on kids.

mother child

But putting our kids in front of technology is sometimes hard to resist. Your kid is having a tantrum on the grocery line? Bring up a movie on the iPad. Children whining at the restaurant? Hand them your iPhone and see their little smiling faces and glazed-over eyes light up from the warm glow of the screen.

However, these solutions are often tinged with parental guilt and a nagging feeling that maybe we shouldn’t be doing this quite so much. To figure out how much is too much, I apply what I call the delight principle – and it’s perhaps not what it sounds like. It’s not experiencing the (yes) exquisite delight of  that whining/crying/fussing/annoying behavior stopping as quickly as if you pressed the mute button. Rather, it’s the idea that if we’re putting devices in our children’s hands so much that we’re losing opportunities to delight in them and enjoy their wonderful little selves, then we might want to reevaluate.

In a nutshell, devices can be used in a “disconnecting” way that, over time, can reduce a child’s experience of that  loving twinkle in your eye, that unconditional positive regard that is the cornerstone of a happy childhood.

This notion – show your child that you delight in them – is obvious in many ways.  But I think that in the cacophony of all the “expert” parenting advice out there – from free range parenting to attachment parenting – this simple instinct that every parent has is easy to lose track of. When children are NOT being delightful (often!), devices are not necessarily a parent’s best friend. Here are a few ways that delight can be blocked when devices are used to disconnect during frustrating situations:

1. Remember to twinkle: Children need to see themselves literally reflected in our eyes in the form of that loving twinkle. It’s not that we need to praise them (and indeed there is good research coming out now about the downside of praise) but rather we need to take joy in their accomplishments, mirror their journey of self-discovery, and be our children’s promoters (as distinct from praisers). Putting devices in front of our kids “too much” has the effect of directly, physically blocking that twinkle. We need to trust our guts as parents on how much twinkle we want to block and make a mindful choice.

2. Share your child’s world: Take time to see the world from your child’s perspective. Every parent knows that it’s a magical place. Explore the world together, discuss ideas, point out things that are interesting or puzzling or wonderful. Listen to what they have to say about it, and if they don’t have much to say, just be with their experience of it and share your experience. Using a device to share in your child’s world seems like one of the best possible uses of a device. So, when we bring out a device, we can choose to use it to connect with our children or to tune them out.

3. Help your child find their own inner delightful child: Just in case you were starting to think I am a proponent of “just twinkle and let the hard stuff go” – not the case. By #3 here, I mean I think we shouldn’t be afraid to talk to our child about being civilized and polite – yes, delightful – human beings. I think that children who are explicitly taught and socialized to be polite, compassionate, and empathic will on average be delightful children and will grow up to be delightful adults. And the converse is also true. I think too much device time reduces opportunities to guide our children towards being delightful. Moreover,  we have to believe that a child is delightful for this to even work. With too much device time I think it’s harder to know how delightful our children truly can be.

There are definitely times when I choose to use a device to press that mute button and just take a break. But when this starts to become a family habit (are they on the device every time you go out to dinner, precluding opportunities to actually talk with one another? Are they spending so much time watching tv that you don’t know how their day at school was? ), it might make sense to do a delight check and make sure the technology choices we’re making for our children sit right with us.

 

 

 

The Happiest iPhone on the Block: Why Managing Your Digital Life is Like Good Parenting

When I started blogging a little over a year ago, I was a true social media skeptic. I drew more inspiration from thinkers like Sherry Turkle than Anil Dash. But my experiences with social media have turned this on its head. I’m still a skeptic in the sense that, as a scientist, I believe we need to know a lot more about how social media affect our lives for better and for worse. But I don’t feel the kind of concern I used to feel. Perhaps I’ve been tempted by the siren song of technology, lulled by a false sense of security engendered by the all-consuming digital embrace… but I don’t think so. I actually feel more in control and less overwhelmed by social media and other digital forms of communication than ever before. I feel they are tools, which I can selectively choose among and harness. I believe that a sense of well-being and balance in social media use is possible if we use some simple practices. The best metaphor I can think of for these practices is that they are the types of things that an effective and sensitive parent does. Here are the top five “parenting strategies” I’ve used to manage my social media burden:

naughty child

  1. Establish rules and set limits. Children thrive when there are consistent limits and structure. In the same way, our technology use needs rules and limits. If I don’t set limits on when and how I use social media, I’m more likely to get sucked into the black hole of keeping up with every tweet/text/email/post/newsfeed. I’m more easily distracted by social media, less present with others, and more likely to waste time and be less efficient because of it. Like all good parents, I try to create structure that is firm but fair. Harsh discipline might work in the short term, but the child usually rebels. So, I try not to be unreasonable or unrealistic about the rules (e.g., “I can only check email once a day, and for no more than 10 minutes” doesn’t work). I’ve tried to find a set of guidelines that work with my life and make me happy.
  2. Monitor communication technology use. It’s 10 o’clock. Do you know how much social media you’ve used today? This is really about being mindful about how we’re using our technology. I prioritize my time – I only have so much time and attention in a day, and so I try to spend my mental and social capital wisely. I keep track and schedule times that I will use these tools, and know the times that they need to be put to bed.
  3. Reinforce good behavior. It’s not only the amount of time we use social media or communication technology. It’s about how we use it and what it brings to our lives. I try to select digital communities that brings something positive to my life and that cultivates a positive peer network.
  4. Selectively ignore. In parenting, the idea here is that if a child is showing a troublesome behavior, as long as it’s not destructive, it can be “extinguished” by just ignoring it. If there is no reaction, and no reward, there ceases to be a reason for the child to act that way. And then the child stops being a nuisance. In the similar vein, when I start to feel that my communication technology use is becoming burdensome and bossy, when I feel the pressure to respond to every message or push notification is too much, I start ignoring it. Most of us like the feeling of being connected, and hope that the dings and rings on our devices will bring something good into our lives or that stressful things can be averted and dealt with quickly. So, we start to check obsessively and end up spending dinner time with our family on a device, or walking into traffic with our eyes glued to our iPhone. When I begin to move in this direction, I reverse course and start to consciously and selectively ignore my devices in order to break the cycle.
  5. Adapt technology use to fit my life. One key to being a good parent, I believe, is structuring your life so that it can accommodate children in support of their well-being and happiness. Some (in my opinion) not-so-great parents do the opposite, they expect not to change their lives at all and that children should just fit in. In contrast to my list of strategies thus far, when it comes to mobile technology and social media I try to follow the inspiration of the questionable parent: I fit technology into my life so that I remain able to do what I want and need to do without being sidetracked. If my life is becoming  more stressful and less organized because of social media burden, then I’m probably doing the opposite.

So remember, when that naughty stream of Facebook status updates are just too much to handle, you’re a week behind on your twitter feed, the pesky email inbox just won’t empty out, and those 10 texts – that are going to go unanswered for another few days – won’t stop bugging you, ask yourself: what would mom do?

The Medium is the Message: On Mindfulness and Digital Mirrors

I recently had the pleasure of doing a talk-back with Congressman Tim Ryan on the role of mindfulness – focusing your awareness on the present moment – in education, as part of the Rubin Museum’s Brainwave Festival in NYC. The film, called “Changing Minds at Concord High School,” followed an entire school as they took part in a mindfulness training program. This school is unique in that it is a transfer school, a last stop for many kids with a history of school failure and discipline problems. The twist here is that the students both filmed the experience and conducted a study – of their classmates! – comparing the effects of mindfulness training with that of a placebo. We also included a science curriculum on the neuroscience of mindfulness – how it can change our brains for the better. I was the lead scientist on this project, so the kids were my “research assistants.” The project was spearheaded and directed by the amazing Susan Finley and filmed by the equally inspiring Peter Barton (with the help of the students). Our outstanding scientific advisors were David Vago and Robert Roeser. There is a lot that was amazing about this project, these kids, and this film. I want to focus on just one aspect, which hinges on the phrase “The medium is the message.”

lake yoga

The medium is the message. This phrase was coined by Marshall McLuhan who put forward the idea that the “form of a medium embeds itself in the message.” That is, the medium in which we experience something influences how we perceive the take-home message. Using movies as an example, he argued that the way in which this medium presents time has transformed our view of time from something that is linear and sequential into something that reflects patterns of connection across people and places. I am obviously no film theorist, but I apply this notion to the idea that different media provide us with an array of tools that can help us create a narrative of ourselves and the world that is unique to that medium.

Film and self-identity. In the case of our film “Changing Minds at Concord High School,” I believe that one way that the medium was the message for our students was that film is able to portray individual identities as being truly flexible and changeable. I think that the teens at Concord High, many of whom have experienced tremendous challenges, stress, and obstacles in life, didn’t believe as a group that change for them was really possible. But what our program strove to do, using converging media – film, scientific readings, mind/body experiences of mindfulness – was to convince these young adults that they really could change their brains, change counterproductive habits of thinking, and find the tools to focus more and let negative feelings go. As we move on to Phase 2 of the project by refining and developing our program, we are asking the fundamental question: How can we best use these tools to teach teens to view themselves and the world differently, creating a narrative in which personal change is possible?

Our digital mirrors. I think these issues are especially important to consider now, in this era of social media and reality television in which we crave to see ourselves reflected back to ourselves. We can criticize this, and analyze this, but the fact of it borders on the irrefutable. We know that it’s easier than ever before to document our lives via pictures and videos on our mobile devices, and share them with our digital networks. And we love to do so. Social media, through which we share our images of ourselves and our lives, are an immeasurably huge and complex array of mirrors into which we can gaze at ourselves. There may be costs and benefits to this, but it simply is. The power of this, however, is that we now have a new set of tools to curate our beliefs about who we are – hopefully for the better. And perhaps we believe this evidence of who we are more strongly because it is concrete, it is documented, it receives “likes” and is seen by others and thus is real. I’m liked therefore I am.

This digital infrastructure also provides a profound opportunity for those trying to support growth and positive change in youth. If we help youth document the possibility of change – like we did in “Changing Minds at Concord High School”- they may start to believe it applies to their own lives. This is particularly important for those of us who aren’t used to feeling that the world is full of possibilities. In this way, social networking may be a medium that gives the message that change is possible and that our limitations are as fluid as the flow of information.

Blocks and books better than electronic games for your toddler?

Thanks for this post, Dona Matthews! 

Blocks and books better than electronic games for your toddler?

I think one important take-home message is that we need to think through how electronic toys could be designed to better foster communication  and creativity.

This is Your Brain on Technology?

There is a lot of polarized dialogue about the role of communication technologies in our lives – particularly mobile devices and social media: Technology is either ruining us or making our lives better than ever before. For the worried crowd, there is the notion that these technologies are doing something to our brain; something not so good – like making us stupid, numbing us, weakening social skills. It recalls the famous anti-drug campaign: This is your brain on drugs. In the original commercial, the slogan is accompanied by a shot of an egg sizzling on a skillet.

So, this is your brain on technology? Is technology frying our brain? Is this a good metaphor?

One fundamental problem with this metaphor is that these technologies are not doing anything to us; our brain is not “on” technology. Rather, these technologies are tools. When we use tools, we change the world and ourselves. So, in this sense, of course our brain is changed by technology. But our brain is also changed when we read a book or bake a pie. We should not accord something like a mobile device a privileged place beyond other tools.  Rather, we should try to remember that the effects of technology are a two-way street: we choose to use tools in a certain way, which in turn influences us.

We would also do well to remember that the brain is an amazing, seemingly alchemical combination of genetic predispositions, experiences, random events, and personal choices. That is, our brains are an almost incomprehensibly complex nature-nurture stew.  This brain of ours is also incredibly resilient and able to recover from massive physical insults. So, using a tool like a mobile device isn’t going to “fry” our brain. Repeated use of any tool will shape our brain, surely, but fry it? No.

So, “this is your brain on technology” doesn’t work for me.

The metaphor I like better is to compare our brains “on technology” to a muscle. This is a multi-faceted metaphor. On one hand, like a muscle, if you don’t use your brain to think and reason and remember, there is the chance that you’ll become less mentally agile and sharp. That is, if you start using technology at the expense of using these complex and well-honed skills, then those skills will wither and weaken. It’s “use it or lose it.”

On the other hand, we use tools all the time to extend our abilities and strength –whether it’s the equipment in a gym that allows us to repeatedly use muscles in order to strengthen them; or whether it’s a tool that takes our muscle power and amplifies it (think of a lever). Similarly, by helping us do things better, technology may serve to strengthen rather than weaken us.

It is an open question whether one or both of these views are true – and for what people and under what conditions. But I believe that we need to leave behind notions of technology “doing” things to our brains, and instead think about the complex ways in which our brains work with technology – whether that technology is a book or a mobile device.

 

The Gamification of Learning

A recent Pew Report polled internet experts and users about the “gamification” of our daily lives, particularly in our networked communications. They write:

The word “gamification” has emerged in recent years as a way to describe interactive online design that plays on people’s competitive instincts and often incorporates the use of rewards to drive action – these include virtual rewards such as points, payments, badges, discounts, and “free” gifts; and status indicators such as friend counts, retweets, leader boards, achievement data, progress bars, and the ability to “level up.”

According to the survey, most believe that the effects of this gamification will be mostly positive, aiding education, health, business, and training. But some fear the potential for “insidious, invisible behavioral manipulation.“

Don’t pooh-pooh the behavioral manipulation point. Do you really want to have your on-line behavior shaped like one of Skinner’s rats by some faceless conglomerate? But that’s actually not what got me going. What got me wondering about where this is all going is that it seems undeniable that gamification will shape how we learn, in particular how kids learn.

Elements that make up this gamification – rewards, competition, status, friend counts – are particularly powerful incentives. Neuroscience had repeatedly documented that these incentives rapidly and intensely “highjack” the reward centers of our brain. So it begins to feel as if we’re addicted to getting that next retweet, higher friend counts, higher scores on fruit ninja, etc.,…. Even the sound that our device makes when a message pops up gives us a rush, makes us tingle with anticipation. We eagerly wait for our next “hit” and are motivated to make that happen.

This gamification could have a powerful impact on how we go about learning. Psychological researchers distinguish between a fixed and a growth mindset – that is, peoples’ beliefs – about intelligence and learning. When people have a fixed mindset, intelligence is viewed as a hard-wired, permanent trait. If intelligence is a fixed trait, then we shouldn’t have to work very hard to do well, and rewards should come easily. In contrast, in a growth mindset, intelligence is viewed as something that can grow and develop through hard work. In this way, a growth mindset promotes learning because mastering a new skill or learning something new is enjoyable for its own sake and is part of the process of intellectual growth. Intelligence is not fixed because it is shaped by hard work and effort. For a nice summary of these distinctions, see a recent post on a wonderful blog called Raising Smarter Kids.

This is where gamification comes in. If children are inundated with incentives and rewards for even the simplest activity or learning goal, motivation for learning becomes increasingly focused on the potential for reward, rather than the process and joy of learning. In addition, when you’re doing things mainly for the reward, the motivation for hard work will peter out after a while. You just move on to the next, perhaps easier way of getting rewards rather than digging in and trying to master something. It also becomes more difficult to appreciate the value of setbacks – not getting a reward – as an opportunity to improve. In these subtle ways, gamification may undermine a child’s ability to develop a growth mindset. Instead, we might have a generation of children who are implicitly taught that everything we do should be immediately rewarded, and that getting external things, rather than the joy of learning, is why we do what we do.

Promoting a growth mindset is not only important for helping our children learn, but for helping them face frustrations and obstacles. Dona Matthews and Joanne Foster, in Raising Smarter Kids, highlight several rules to promote a growth mindset:

1. Learn at all times. This means think deeply and pay attention. When we use technology and social media, we can sometimes err on the side of doing things very quickly and superficially. So, this rule is important to emphasize with children today more than ever. We also have to remind our children (and ourselves) that it’s ok to make mistakes, even if we don’t get rewarded for our efforts.

2. Work hard. This is a skill that of course can be promoted by the presence of incentives – kids will work for hours at a game if they can beat their highest score. But what happens after they get the reward? Are they committed to continue learning? Will they continue struggling and practicing? Sustained hard work is an opportunity for personal growth that external motivation, like that from rewards, may not be able to sustain. Here, the enjoyment of learning and gaining mastery may be the most powerful motivator when it comes to helping children become dedicated learners for the long haul.

3. Confront deficiencies and setbacks. This is about persisting in the face of failure. The increasing role of gamification could both help and hinder this. Gamification will help in the sense that with so many rewards and game dynamics, opportunities for failure are around every corner and children will need to learn to persist. At the same time, what guarantees that a child will persist to obtain these rewards? Rewards are not equally motivating for all individuals. Will those not interested in rewards and games just be left feeling bored, and take part in fewer opportunities for learning?

I’m not saying that we should avoid all rewards – that would too extreme and impossible to boot. But we must maintain our awareness of how, with increasing gamification, the simplest act of using technology, logging onto our favorite website, or using social media might be subtly changing our motivation to learn.

Emotional Attunement: Good Food for Babies’ Brains

Dona Matthews, Ph.D., leading expert on gifted development and education, offers us a fascinating and timely perspective on the deep connections between parents and children – even on the neurobiological level – and the potential dangers of replacing these connections with “electronic engagement-replacements.”

Emotional Attunement: Good Food for Babies’ Brains