Can Digital Mental Health Tools Save Psychology?

After decades of research on mental health treatments for conditions ranging from schizophrenia to depression, from anxiety to autism, our track record remains poor. For example, anxiety disorders alone will affect over 90 million people in the lifetime – in the U.S. alone. That’s approaching a third of our population. Yet, only a small fraction of us receive effective, long-lasting treatment. Thus, while we mental health professionals do much good and have some excellent, evidence-based treatments, we also know that, on balance, we are far from doing enough. We are failing.

I believe that there are many reasons for this failure. Psychological disorders are incredibly complex, with diverse and wide-ranging causes and manifestations that vary extremely from person to person. So we have an unbelievably tough problem to solve. But in addition, I believe that there is a two-part “recipe for disaster” that has put up additional barriers to the development of effective treatments:

  1. The stigma of mental illness
  2. Professionals minimize the importance of making treatments acceptable to the individual

The Stigma of Mental Illness

If you type “stigma definition” into Google, here is what comes up:

noun: stigma; plural noun: stigmata; plural noun: stigmas

  1. a mark of disgrace associated with a particular circumstance, quality, or person.

“the stigma of mental disorder”

synonyms: shamedisgracedishonorignominyopprobriumhumiliation, (bad) reputation
antonyms: honorcredit

It is no coincidence that mental illness is the paradigmatic example given by the dictionary. It is one of the most pervasive and persistent of the social stigmas. If we think about other sources of stigma – like the stigma suffered by those diagnosed with HIV/AIDS in the 80’s and 90’s and beyond – the stigma of mental illness is especially striking because mental illness is not contagious. But we fear it as if it were. The mentally ill are NOT more likely to commit violence, and yet, this is what many people fear. Take the media frenzy following the Sandy Hook Elementary School tragedy as an example of this type of assumption.

As long as mental illness remains a sign of disgrace and dishonor, people will avoid seeking professional help because it makes them feel broken – perhaps beyond repair.

Professionals Minimize the Importance of Making Treatments Acceptable to the Individual

There is another issue exacerbating the barrier represented by the stigma of mental illness. This barrier is that we scientists and practitioners, in our education, are socialized away from figuring out how to provide individuals with services they need in a way that they want – something that is obvious to any product- or service-oriented industry. Instead, we are taught to believe that we know best because we use the tools of science to develop the most efficacious treatments. The implicit narrative is: “We are the experts! We have figured out the best “medicine” for you, now take it!” This arrogance often keeps us from seeing that if we develop treatments that are too onerous or if treatments are embedded in a culture of disgrace and stigma, then we have failed to solve the problem. We have failed to meet “consumer needs.”

This is of course an overstatement and many mental health professionals actively fight against these attitudes. But there is a grain of truth here. Anyone on either side of the mental health fence – both professionals and patients – is familiar with this feeling, whether it’s acknowledged or swept under the rug.

How Digital Mental Health Tools Can Disrupt Stigma and Increase Acceptability of Treatmentspersonal zen achievement

In addition to breaking down barriers to effective, affordable, and accessible mental health treatment, I believe that digital – in particular mobile – mental health tools can be harnessed to have profound and lasting disruptive effects on the stigma of mental illness and on our failure to make acceptability of treatments a top priority. Here are five ways I believe digital mental health tools might just save Psychology:

If treatments are administered on a device, they are normalized 

If we are successful in attempts to embed evidence-based treatments into mobile and gamified formats, I believe we can profoundly reduce the experience of and appearance of stigma. Devices have become our filters of information, our gateways to the world, sources of fun, and our hubs of connection. The actions we perform on our devices, by association, feel more “normal,” more connected to every aspect of our lives and to others. This creates a process of validation rather than shaming. By putting mental health treatments on devices, we might just be normalizing these treatments and creating positive emotional contagion – treatments become “good” by association with the devices we love. And if we gamify interventions, these effects could be strengthened even further.

Self-curating our mental health

With digital mental health tools, accessibility is exponentially increased. For example, with mobile mental health apps, you have affordable help “in the palm of your hand.” This ability to curate creates a sense of empowerment. This is “self-help” in a very real sense. With this high level of accessibility and empowerment, many of us will avail ourselves of interventions to reduce negative experiences and states.  In addition, with the proliferation of digital tools to PROMOTE positive outcomes and to reach our fullest potential, we may find on the societal level that this positive focus is just as helpful – if not more so – as the focus on preventing negative outcomes. This attitude of promoting the positive is an excellent antidote to stigma. Who couldn’t benefit from promoting more of what is positive about oneself and how one lives life?

Digital health technology provides powerful platforms for community building

This is readily apparent. With greater community building comes a sense of belonging and a reduction of isolation. But digital community building also provides opportunities for effective advocacy. Of course, many such groups exist, but excellent digital mental health tools with a social media component could accelerate the creation of such systems, leveraging all the power of an individual’s full social network.

The profit motive will fuel innovation and valuing of consumer perspectives

Once interventions enter the digital and mobile technology world, the accompanying consumer focus (read $$$) will force the development of consumer-oriented products. Users have power in this domain. So, if interventions are onerous, boring, or non-intuitive, people will simply not use them. User stats will do the rest – no one will put resources into a product that people won’t use. Better ones WILL be developed.

Digital mental health increases opportunities for gamification

The gamification of mental health is beginning. At this point, we are taking baby steps, since we have an absence of a strong empirical base; in other words, there is precious little research showing that computerized games have a direct, positive influence on mental illness or on the promotion of mental wellness. But we are only in the earliest, exciting stages of this revolution. As I’ve written elsewhere, I don’t think all treatments should be computerized or gamified, nor do I think face-to-face therapy is obsolete – far from it. But I believe that if fun can be combined with powerful treatment technologies, then we can in a single step make profound progress in erasing the stigma of mental illness and creating treatments that people will truly want to use.

Laying down a social marker

Psyche's Circuitry:

Another thought-provoking piece by Gareth Price about how the pressure to share via social media may be influencing the quality and quantity of our ideas.

Originally posted on DisCoverage:

frustrated_writer_by_photonerd88-d3gobx6BrainJuicer’s Tom Ewing wrote a blog post today about how the way we listen to music could change.

He envisioned people will soon have “attention regimes, in the way they follow dietary regimes and exercise regimes, and will have them in public: a proclamation of one’s listening regime will become a kind of social marker”; adding:

Demonstrating you can pay attention in a world of instant clicks will be a mark of presumed character (and bragging rights) in the same way demonstrating you keep fit in a world of chairs and screens is among white-collar workers now.”

Ephemerality is built into the internet.

If you don’t update your website Google will punish you by pushing you down its search rankings.

Fail to tweet for any extended period and people will unfollow you.

Don’t update your status and friends will accuse you of being a ‘Facebook…

View original 229 more words

Appily Ever After?

I was very interested to read this funny take  on psychology smartphone apps in the New York Times (by Judith Newman) – or more accurately, how NOT to build a psychology app. I just blogged about this general topic in my last post, and what struck me most about this article was the notion of time.

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Art by Emily Flake (published in the New York Times 4/5/2013)

This article seems to suggest that mental health apps should quickly and effortlessly facilitate our relationships, efficiency, and well-being. As Newman writes in the article:  “All of these apps require thought. Lots and lots of thought. Thinking is what I do all day long. I needed something that would turn my mind off, not on.”

Great point. Maybe we don’t want the app to be our shrink – because when we go to a therapist, we tend to have a set of expectations that involve spending a good deal of time and energy (unless we’re just looking for a medication fix). Apps, by their nature, are fast, easy, and mobile. So, most of us expect that a psychology app will be a shortcut to mental health. We shouldn’t have to spend time learning how to use the app or being on it too much – at least not so much that it’s taking away from “having a life.”

This view tells me that there is a potentially deep disconnect here: between what many of us in the mental health field think of as the promise of mobile health technologies and what everyone else thinks. Many psychologists see a future in which apps and computerized therapeutic tools break down barriers to treatment, which can be too expensive and intensive for many. For example, for the most common class of psychiatric disorder, the anxiety disorders, only about 20% of anxious people receive treatment! So, the psychologists are thinking, jeez, mobile technologies offer so many amazing possibilities for integrating mental health treatment into the daily life of people who are suffering.  Let’s create an app for that!

But we need to think through our approach carefully. If we just put the same old (frankly boring) computerized interventions on smartphones, will that actually help us reach more people? How many will choose to use these tools? Maybe some, but perhaps not many. Perhaps what most of us want from an app is the digital and interactive version of the self-help book – you can take it or leave it,  pick it up and put it down after a few minutes and still get something from it, and which doesn’t feel like just another source of techno-burden.

So, what is the take-home message for the mental health professionals? Make it fun, make it fast, and make it effective or get back to work on making traditional treatments better.

Gamifying Mental Health or: Mental Health – We Got Game

I just attended the second annual Entertainment Software and Cognitive Neurotherapeutics Society (ESCoNS) conference. Say that five times fast.  This conference brought together people in the gaming world with cognitive neuroscientists. I went because I’m developing (and testing) an app that I believe can help people reduce stress, worry, and anxiety in their lives. In addition to more deeply exploring how to make mental health truly fun, I felt that I was seeing the future of mental health unfolding before my eyes.

Gamifying mental health

Here are four ideas I think will change how the field of mental health will look in a decade (or less):

1. Mental health care WILL BE gamified. The mobile revolution and app zeitgeist have changed how we get things done. We want an app for everything because we want our life mobile and streamlined, and the minute we think we want to do something, we want a device to help us do it. We also are trusting ourselves (and our networks) more and professionals less. This is the self-help movement taken to a new level. If we can seek mental health support on our devices rather than through a professional, more of us will do so. This plays into our growing tendency to feel more comfortable with devices than with others – this may be good or bad, or somewhere in between, but this is how it is.  I believe that it is not whether mental health care will be gamified, it is only a question of how and when.

2. Fun will motivate mental health treatment seeking. Scientists interested in human beings understand how to break something down into its component parts (whether an idea, a behavior, or a biological response) to study it, but scientists are not trained to construct something that is fun and that motivates people to come back again and again. That is art and intuition, combined with a lot of experience and good old-fashioned luck. If we want to reach the greatest number of people, and help them integrate mental health interventions into their lives, we need to make mental health fun.

3. Training your brain….with video games? The idea that you could train your brain with video games is still perceived by many to be in the realm of science fiction. But if you think about the fact that every experience we have, particularly repeated experiences, change our brains – why wouldn’t a video game? This reflects the important concept of neural plasticity – that the structure and function of the brain is malleable and changeable not just in childhood, but throughout the lifespan. In addition to games that can train different abilities (e.g., attention in kids with ADHD) technologies like virtual reality are being used as safe and effective ways to treat everything from addiction to post-traumatic stress disorder.

 4. The Emotional Brain is a “buzzing” target for intervention. In the 20th century, psychology was dominated by cognitive theories of how the brain works and what causes mental illness. Emotion was a little blip on the screen, an irrational irritant to the otherwise rational, predictable, and orderly domain of the thinking mind. Now, that irritant is an increasingly important focus of research. For example, not much more than a decade ago, economic decision making was understood as a “rational” process. Now it’s assumed that emotions influence our decisions, for better and for worse, and the task is to figure out how. The effect of emotion is not “irrational.” Rather, it reflects the fundamental integration between our ability to feel and to think. Without one, the other is deeply impoverished. As an emotion researcher, my colleagues and I are happy everyone has caught up – it’s about time! Emotions are the engines of our lives – and of psychopathology. No real living happens in an emotional vacuum.

It was clear to me from the conference that there is an emerging field in which the gaps between clinical psychology, cognitive neuroscience and entertainment are being bridged. This field is fundamentally interested in the emotional and social brain and “healthy emotional brain architecture” will be the goal of many computerized, gamified interventions. Increasingly, people predict a (near) future in which games will routinely be prescribed in the doctor’s office, and may eventually replace the office visit. If we can change our emotional brains, we can change ourselves. At least, that’s what many are counting on.

 

Rebel Without a Status Update

I am fascinated by the psychology of Facebook status updates. There are many reasons to make a status update. One reason, of course, is obvious – let others know what you’re up to or share something that’s cool. For example, if I did frequent status updates, I might decide to post “Buying a fantastic ½ pound of Australian feta at Bedford Cheese Shop on Irving Place – should I up it to a pound?!” (and seriously, it is incredible). This may be an interesting snapshot of a day in my life, but these types of status updates are exactly the ones that tend to annoy me for some reason. Even the most benign version of this feels like TMI.

Why? Status updates are for many an instinctive way to reach out.  A recent study even showed that increasing the number of status updates you do every week makes you feel more connected to others and less lonely. Seems like a good thing! Moreover, it’s consistent with what seems to be our new cultural comfort zone – being virtually seen and heard by a loosely connected group of people we know (or sort of know) as our “social network.” This virtual network is the social status quo for many of us, and certainly for many children growing up today.

I believe one consequence of this is that no one wants to be James Dean anymore. Putting it another way, maintaining privacy and being a strong silent type, like Dean, are no longer alluring ideas to us.  And when I thought of this, I realized why I don’t feel fully comfortable with the status update culture – I am a proponent of the James Dean School of Sharing Personal Information in Public: motto, the less the better. I like understatement, privacy, the choice to share with a few and retain privacy with most.

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It’s no coincidence that as a culture, we don’t fetishize James Dean any more. Many of today’s icons (some of them “anti-icons” because we love to feel superior) are people who humiliate themselves, who will tweet that they’re on the toilet and what they’re doing there, who end up in compromised positions, and happen to have pictures and videos of those positions, which then promptly go viral (funny how that happens). James Dean would have disapproved.

James Dean himself would have been very bad at social media…..or perhaps very, very good. Very bad, because he would have had little to say, and would have hated the constant spotlight and social media culture of ubiquitous commentary and chit chat. On the other hand, he might have been very good at it because he would have been the Zen master of the status update, expounding with haiku-like pithiness. An imaginary James Dean status update:

James Dean…….

Old factory town

Full moon, snow shines on asphalt

#Porsche alive with speed

But seriously, while he probably wouldn’t have written haiku, perhaps he somehow would have figured out how to use sharing to create a sense of privacy, because a sense of mystery would have remained intact.

Yes, the status update is a beautiful thing. We have an efficient and fun tool which allows us to reach out to others, curate our self-image, and think out loud to a community. But I wonder if we’re starting to lose the simple pleasures of privacy, of knowing less and wondering more.

Islands in the Stream: A Meditation on How Time Passes on Facebook

Shortly after the terrible tragedy in Newtown, I received email notifications that my (designated) close friends on Facebook had made status updates. Scrolling through my news feed, my friends expressed the range of emotions that we all felt – horror, sadness, distress, anger, and confusion. Later that day, I popped onto Facebook again and was jarred and a little upset to read that friends who seemed to have just expressed horror and heartbreak were now posting about every day, silly, and flippant things.

Now, why should I be jarred or upset? Hours had gone by. After three, or six, or ten hours, why wouldn’t we be in a different emotional state, and why wouldn’t it be ok to post about it? I started to think that it was not my friends’ posts that were at issue here. Rather, it was the nature of how I perceive the passage of time and sequence of events on Facebook. A couple aspects of this came to mind:

Facebook time is asynchronous with real time. Time is easily condensed on Facebook. Events and updates that might be spread out over the course of a day or several days can be read at a glance, and therefore seem to be happening almost simultaneously. So, our perception of time on Facebook is a combination of how frequently our friends post and how frequently we check in. For example, say I check in twice in two days – at 9am on day 1 and at 9pm on day 2. I know a good bit of time has passed (and the amount of time that has passed is clearly indicated next to friends’ updates), but I still read each status update in the context of the previous ones – especially if I pop onto a friend’s Timeline instead of my news feed.

With this type of infrequent checking, friends’ updates about their varying and changing emotions (which might be reasonably spread out over the course of a day or multiple days) appear to be an emotional roller coaster. If someone has several posts in a row about the same thing, even if they are spaced days apart, the person comes across as preoccupied with the topic. Somehow, I form a view of this individual that brings these little snippets together into one big amorphous NOW. If I were checking more frequently, however, perhaps I wouldn’t lump updates together in this way. I’d “feel” the passage of time and – more accurately – see that the ebb and flow of status updates are like islands in the stream of our lives rather than a direct sequence of events.

RiverIslands_2

Related to this first point, it occurred to me that status updates are not meant to be interpreted in the context of preceding status updates. Our brains are pattern recognition machines. So, if Facebook status updates follow one after the other, our brains may perceive a direct sequence of events. But, each status update is a snapshot of a moment, a thought, or a feeling. Intuitively, they are supposed to be stand-alone, not readily interpreted in the context of a previous update, even if they occur close together in actual time. Think how different this is from our face-to-face interactions, in which sequence of events matter. For example, imagine that you’re at work, and your co-worker tells you she is on pins and needles waiting to hear back about a medical test. When you see her a few hours later, she is joking and laughing. You assume she either (a) got some good news from the doctor, or (b) is trying to distract herself from the worry. You don’t think she’s just having a good time, out of context of what you learned about her earlier in the day. But this contextualization is not the way it works on Facebook. Linkages between updates are tenuous, connections malleable. We can lay out our stream of consciousness in a way that requires no consistency among updates. Maybe the temporal and logical requirements of the off-line world are suspended on social networking sites like Facebook. Maybe our brains need to catch up.

In Love with the Written Word: Reading in the Digital Age

I was interested to see this commentary by five college students about reading in the digital age, posted on Zócalo Public Square. One of the things that struck me the most was my own anticipation that I would be out of touch with how college students are engaging with the written word today; and I’m a college professor who should be in touch! But actually, I found that the diversity of their approaches mirrors the same diversity I see among my peers.

digital readingSeveral seemed to express a need for speed and fast consumption of many (relatively superficial) sources of information in the attempt to swim rather than sink in the ocean of information that needs sorting through every day. Others seemed to feel burdened by this glut of information and feel nostalgic for the simple and physically-satisfying pleasure of holding and reading a book – a virtual luxury in our fast-paced lives because it’s hard to multitask with a book.  Among all the writers, however, I sensed information fatigue combined with enthusiasm for the written word.

My take-home message is that, whatever the future holds, the digital age has put writing, reading, and text at the center of our lives. I think we are becoming more rather than less in love with reading. The question is, what will we be reading and will it be grammatically correct ;-)?

In the Eye of the Storm: What Hurricane Sandy Taught Me about Social Media and Technology

As a resident of downtown Manhattan, my family and I were affected by Hurricane Sandy. But the worst that happened to us was losing power and water, and having to walk up and down 28 flights of stairs to get ourselves and our stuff out of our apartment so we could move to our dear friend’s apartment on the Upper East Side (where we are now totally safe and comfortable). Our kids feel displaced and are missing their routines and friends, and my husband and I are inconvenienced and feel, strangely, like tourists in our own city. But that’s the worst of it. This is obviously NOT a poor me story.

But this experience has opened my eyes to a few things. In addition to teaching me about the enduring kindness of strangers in this supposedly rude and impersonal digital age, this experience has taught me a few new things about the role of technology and social media in my life and in the life of my family. Here are two that have been on my mind:

The Importance of Physical versus Digital Neighbors. After the power went out, the kids on our floor were pretty much technology-free. What did they do? We opened the doors of our apartments, and the kids (including our one-year-old) ran out into the hallway like it was a backyard. Our neighbor Patricia said we should put down grass. The kids brought out toys and started playing store, house, battles, throw and catch, gymnastics. They found a collapsed cardboard box, and like all children, found that to be the best toy of all. My one-year-old got rides on the box from her brother, who would pull her around the hallway. Kids went freely from apartment to apartment. They played with each other like never before. I felt like I was living in an idealized American neighborhood (think Leave it to Beaver, I guess, which makes me June Cleaver? Jeez, you can’t control what leaps to mind can you?). Our doors were open and we fed each other’s kids lunch.   Essentially, we dealt with the loss of power by reaching out to our immediate social network in concrete ways. This simple neighborliness was immensely helpful and satisfying. All it took was walking across the hall. In my mind, no digital social network could be as satisfying in the circumstances we were facing. Of course, digital social media and mobile technologies are incredible tools for getting things done – communicating, getting information, keeping up-to-date, seeking and offering support. But, Sandy reminded me of how isolated, on a visceral level, we may start to feel when we forget to just be with the people around us.

Embodied Technology and Phantom Limbs. My iPhone went kaput (got water in it somehow) on Tuesday. This was horrible timing of course because I couldn’t update anyone about our status. But, as many have observed (e.g.,   JOMO) we often experience great relief and happiness when we can disconnect. However, I wasn’t just feeling happy about shedding the burden of being constantly connected.  I was worried and exhausted about my present moment and didn’t have the energy to look outside my current circumstances to communicate with others. I was fairly overwhelmed with getting the kids to safety. Communicating with our digital social network wasn’t going to help at that moment.

At the same time, I observed that this relief was mixed with some panic. How do I get what I need if I don’t have a phone? Luckily, my husband’s phone was working so we definitely had communication, but I, MYSELF, didn’t have a phone, and that was unnerving. Why would that be? I wasn’t disconnected, because I was with my husband and he was connected. Why did I feel disconnected?

To me, this speaks of the psychological aspect of having mobile devices that keep us constantly connected. It’s an embodied experience, having a device in your hand. And you feel it when it’s gone. Like a phantom limb: once you’ve lost the limb, you can still feel it itching. As humans, we’ve evolved to attach to other beings and to things. We anthropomorphize objects and devices so that we can feel a connection to them. Mobile technologies, because they are so deeply about social access and connection, may be high jacking this fundamental aspect of being human. All I know is that once I got uptown, I ran to the Apple store on 5th Avenue (thank you helpful Apple Genius) and got a new phone.

My family and I came out of the storm in great shape and we feel immensely lucky. For me, the biggest take-home message was that when technology is gone, or compromised, my appreciation for the people around me is that much sweeter.

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.

 

Through a Glass, Darkly; But Then Face to Face: Sensitive Souls and Social Media

There is an idea out there that’s prevalent but which has little or no scientific support:  that people who use more social media are less sensitive, less empathic, and less emotionally attuned. My students Lee Dunn, Amy Medina and I wanted to put that assumption to the test (and reported these findings at the Society for Psychophysiological Research Annual Conference). We found the opposite: that people who prefer to use technology like social media to communicate with others are actually more emotionally sensitive and more empathic. These folks aren’t emotionally stunted or disconnected. If anything, they are more attuned to their emotions and to the emotions of others, and also might be more challenged by these emotions. They are “sensitive souls.”

This makes sense when you start to think about how hard face-to-face interactions can be.When we use social media, we may feel in control and safe compared to face to face. Technology affords a comfortable distance. It’s simply easier to tell someone you’re angry via email or IM, without having to deal with their reactions in person. So, if you’re an emotionally sensitive person, you might be drawn to social media. This is a judgment-free statement. Our findings don’t weigh in on whether this helps or hinders a person’s social and emotional skills. That is the critical next step in our research. Here is what we know so far:

How we put it to the test. While previous studies ask people to report on very basic aspects of their social media use – like how many hours a week they use social media sites – we did something new. We asked people how they prefer to communicate with others (and what they actually did over the past 6 months) when they need to express emotions like anger or excitement, ask for or give social support during emotionally tough times, and exchange information. For each question, answers could vary from 100% using technology (not including the phone) to 100% using face-to-face interactions. Many people showed a strong face-to-face preference, but just as many showed a strong tech preference.

Then, we asked people to tell us about their emotional lives – emotional highs and lows, empathy for others, personality, and satisfaction with the social support they receive from others. Finally, we recorded EEG (aka “brainwaves”) while they viewed emotional pictures. While EEG doesn’t give us the power to directly access people’s consciousness (Oh, Dennis Quaid, you really had us believing that you could EEG your way into our brains in the 1984 movie Dreamscape), EEG can measure the degree to which our brains are sensitive to different types of emotional information – pleasant, disgusting, erotic, dangerous, and cute, cuddly things. We showed participants everything from sex to kittens, and graves to gore.

The power of EEG, portrayed by the movie Dreamscape (1984). Dennis Quaid is probably NOT looking at pictures of kittens.

Findings. Data analyses are incomplete and are not yet published, so I’ll only discuss the broad strokes of our findings. As I stated at the top, those who prefer to communicate via social media and technology versus face-to-face interactions are sensitive souls: they report feeling more negative emotions (like anxiousness and sadness), are less extroverted, and are less satisfied with the social support they receive from others. On the other hand, they also report feeling more empathic towards others (for example, “I get a strong urge to help when I see someone who is upset” or “it upsets me to see someone being treated disrespectfully”).

Complementing this, EEG findings show that those with a social media/tech preference have stronger brain responses to pictures portraying mortality – graves, sick people, dying loved ones. That is, the brains of folks who prefer social media are more sensitive to pictures that are reminders of death and loss.

This is not about social media causing anything! The popular press often describes research about social media in inaccurate ways – saying that social media caused people to be a certain way (e.g., the idea of Facebook depression). This sounds sexy but is just wrong most of the time. Unless you’ve done experiments that show social media directly change something about people, or you’ve tracked how social media predicts changes in people over time, you cannot even begin to discuss causality.

So what can we discuss? What does this all mean? What it means is that our findings are not about causality, they are descriptive. These results help us to describe the social-emotional profile of people who prefer and use tech-mediated versus face-to-face social interactions – their personalities, goals, strengths, and vulnerabilities. Ultimately, this can help us understand the growing role of social media in our everyday routines, and why, for some, these tools can feel like life boats in the stormy seas of our lives. What remains unclear is whether these life boats are going to bring us to shore or whether we will be lost at sea (ok, this metaphor is getting a little much).

Where are we going with this? Importantly, we have no idea what the long-term costs or benefits of social media are for our sensitive souls. That is where I am really going with this research. I believe we need to track how a tech preference influences us from the cradle to the rocking chair: in our digital natives who are using these tools before they are out of diapers; in adults, who almost can’t remember a time when these tools didn’t exist; and in older adults, who may be discovering the immense world that opens up before them when they use technology to communicate with others.

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