Innovation is Dangerous & Gaming Causes Asperger’s

GamerTherapist blog is on vacation and will return with new posts after Labor Day.  In the meantime, here is a reader favorite:

At its heart, diagnosis is about exerting control.  Clinicians want to get some sense of control in understanding a problem.  We link diagnosis to prognosis to control our expectations of how likely and how much we will see a change in the patient’s condition.  Insurance companies want to get a handle on how much to spend on who.  Schools want to control access to resources and organize their student body.  And with the current healthcare situation, the government is sure to use diagnosis as a major part of the criteria in determining who gets what kind of care.

Therapists and Educators do not like to think of ourselves as controlling people.  But we often inadvertently attempt to exert control over our patients and entire segments of the population, by defining something as a problem and then locating it squarely in the individual we are “helping.”

This week has been one of those weeks where I have heard from several different colleagues about workshops they are attending where the presenters are linking Asperger’s with Gaming Addiction:  Not in the sense of “Many people on the Autism Spectrum find success and motivation through the use of video games,” but rather in the sense of “excessive gaming is prevalent in the autistic spectrum community.”

This has always frustrated me, for several reasons, and I decided its time to elaborate on them again:

1. Correlation does not imply Causation.  Although this is basic statistics 101 stuff, therapists and educators continue to make this mistake over and over.  Lots of people with Asperger’s play video games, this is true.  This should not surprise us, because lots of people play video games!  97% of all adolescent boys and 94% of adolescent girls, according to the Pew Research Center.  But we love to make connections, and we love the idea that we are “in the know.”  I can’t tell you how many times when I worked in education and clinics I heard talk of people were “suspected” of having Asperger’s because they liked computers and did not make eye contact.  Really.  If a kiddo didn’t look at the teacher, and liked to spend time on the computer, a suggested diagnosis of Autism couldn’t be far behind.  We like to see patterns in life, even oversimplified ones.

2. Causation often DOES imply bias.  Have you ever stopped to wonder what causes “neurotypical” behavior?  Or what causes heterosexuality for that matter.  Probably not.  We usually try to look for the causation of things we are busily pathologizing in people.  We want everyone to fit within the realm of what the unspoken majority has determined as normal.  Our education system is still prone to be designed like a little factory.  We want to have our desks in rows, our seats assigned, and our tests standardized.  So if your sensory input is a little different, or your neurology atypical, you get “helped.”  Your behavior is labeled as inappropriate if it diverges, and you are taught that you do not have and need to learn social skills.

Educators, parents, therapists and partners of folks on the Austism Spectrum, please repeat this mantra 3 times:

It is not good social skills to tell someone they do not have good social skills.

By the same token, technology, and video games, are not bad or abnormal either.  Don’t you see that it is this consensual attitude that there is something “off” about kids with differences or gamers or geeks that silently telegraphs to school bullies that certain kids are targets?  Yet, when an adolescent has no friends and is bullied it is often considered understandable because they have “poor social skills and spend too much time on the computer.”  Of course, many of the same kids are successfully socializing online through these games, and are active members of guilds where the stuff they hear daily in school is not tolerated on guild chat.

Let’s do a little experiment:  How about I forbid you to go to your book discussion group, poker night, or psychoanalytic institute.  Instead, you need to spend all of your time with the people at work who annoy you, gossip about you and make your life miserable.  Sorry, but it is for your own good.  You need to learn to get along with them, because they are a part of your real life.  You can’t hide in rooms with other weirdos who like talking about things that never happened or happened a long time ago; or hide in rooms with other people that like to spend hours holding little colored pieces of cardboard, sort them, and exchange them with each other for money; or hide in rooms where people interpret dreams and talk about “the family romance.”

I’m sure you get my point.  We have forgotten how little personal power human beings have before they turn 18.  So even if playing video games was a sign of Asperger’s, we need to reconsider our idea that there is something “wrong” with neuro-atypical behaviors.  There isn’t.

A lot of the work I have done with adults on the spectrum has been to help them debrief the trauma of the first 20 years of their lives.  I’ve had several conversations where we’ve realized that they are afraid to ask me or anyone questions about how to do things, because they worried that asking the question was inappropriate or showed poor social skills.  Is that really what you want our children to learn in school and in treatment?  That it is not ok to ask questions?  What a recipe for a life of loneliness and fear!

If you aren’t convinced, please check out this list of famous people with ASD.  They include Actors (Daryl Hannah,) bankers, composers, rock stars, a royal prince and the creator of Pokemon.  Not really surprising when you think about innovation.

3.  Innovation is Dangerous.  Innovation, like art, requires you to want things to be different than the way they are.  Those are the kids that don’t like to do math “that way,” or are seen as weird.  These are the “oversensitive” ones.  These are the ones who spend a lot of time in fantasy, imagining a world that is different.  These are the people I want to have over for hot chocolate and talk to, frankly.

But in our world, innovation is dangerous.  There are unspoken social contracts that support normalcy and bureaucracy (have you been following Congress lately?)  And there are hundreds of our colleagues who are “experts” in trying to get us all marching in lockstep, even if that means killing a different drummer.  When people try to innovate, they are mocked, fired from their jobs, beaten up, put down and ignored.  It takes a great deal of courage to innovate.  The status quo is not neutral, it actively tries to grind those who are different down.

People who are fans of technology, nowadays that means internet and computing, have always been suspect, and treated as different or out of touch with reality.  They spend “too much time on the computer,” we think, until they discover the next cool thing, or crack a code that will help fight HIV.  Only after society sees the value of what they did do they get any slack.

Stop counting the hours your kid is playing video games and start asking them what they are playing and what they like about it.  Stop focusing exclusively on the “poor social skills” of the vulnerable kids and start paying attention to bullies, whether they be playground bullies or experts.  Stop worrying about what causes autism and start worrying about how to make the world a better place for people with it.

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Dopey About Dopamine: Video Games, Drugs, & Addiction

Last week I was speaking to a colleague whose partner is a gamer. She was telling me about their visit to his mother. During the visit my colleague was speaking to his mother about how much he still enjoys playing video games. His mother expressed how concerned she had been about his playing when he was young. “It could have been worse though,” she’d said, “at least he wasn’t into drugs.”

This comparison is reminiscent of the homophobic one where the tolerant person says, “I don’t mind if you’re gay, as long as you don’t come home with a goat.” The “distinction” made actually implies that the two things are comparable. But in fact they are not.

Our culture uses the word addiction pretty frequently and casually. And gamers and opponents of gaming alike use it in reference to playing video games. Frequently we hear the comments “gaming is like a drug,” or “video games are addictive,” or “I’m addicted to Halo 3.” What muddies the waters further are the dozens of articles that talk about “proof” that video games are addictive, that they cause real changes in the brain, changes just like drugs.

We live in a positivistic age, where something is “real” if it can be shown to be biological in nature. I could argue that biology is only one way of looking at the world, but for a change I thought I’d encourage us to take a look at the idea of gaming as addictive from the point of view of biology, specifically dopamine levels in the brain.

Dopamine levels are associated with the reward center of the brain, and the heightened sense of pleasure that characterizes rewarding experiences. When we experience something pleasurable, our dopamine levels increase. It’s nature’s way of reinforcing behaviors that are often necessary for survival.

One of the frequent pieces of evidence to support video game addiction is studies like this one by Koepp et al, which was done in 1998. It monitored changes in dopamine levels from subjects who were playing a video game. The study noted that dopamine levels increased during game play “at least twofold.” Since then literature reviews and articles with an anti-gaming bias frequently and rightly state that video games can cause dopamine levels to “double” or significantly increase.

They’re absolutely right, video games have been shown to increase dopamine levels by 100% (aka doubling.)

Just like studies have shown that food and sex increase dopamine levels:

This graph shows that eating food often doubles the level of dopamine in the brain, ranging from a spike of 50% to a spike of 100% an hour after eating. Sex is even more noticeable, in that it increases dopamine levels in the brain by 200%.

So, yes, playing video games increases dopamine levels in your brain, just like eating and having sex do, albeit less. But just because something changes your dopamine levels doesn’t mean it is addictive. In fact, we’d be in big trouble if we never had increases in our dopamine levels. Why eat or reproduce when it is just as pleasurable to lie on the rock and bask in the sun?

But here’s the other thing that gets lost in the spin. Not all dopamine level increases are created equal. Let’s take a look at another chart, from the Meth Inside-Out Public Media Service Kit:

This is a case where a picture is worth a thousand words. When we read that something “doubles” it certainly sounds intense, or severe. But an increase of 100% seems rather paltry compare to 350% (cocaine) or 1200% (Meth)!

One last chart for you, again from the NIDA. This one shows the dopamine increases (the pink line) in amphetamine, cocaine, nicotine and morphine:

Of all of these, the drug morphine comes closest to a relatively “low” increase of 100%.

So my point here is twofold:

1. Lots of things, not all or most of them drugs, increase the levels of dopamine.

2. Drugs have a much more marked, sudden, and intense increase in dopamine level increase compared to video games.

Does this mean that people can’t have problem usage of video games? No. But what it does mean, in my opinion, is that we have to stop treating behaviors as if they were controlled substances. Playing video games, watching television, eating, and having sex are behaviors that can all be problematic in certain times and certain contexts. But they are not the same as ingesting drugs, they don’t cause the same level of chemical change in the brain.

And we need to acknowledge that there is a confusion of tongues where the word addiction is involved. Using it in a clinical sense is different than in a lay sense– saying “I’m hooked on meth” is not the same as saying “I’m hooked on phonics.” Therapists and gamers alike need to be more mindful of what they are saying and meaning when they say they are addicted to video games. Do they mean it is a psychological illness, a medical phenomenon? Do they mean they can’t get enough of them, or that they like them a whole lot? Do they mean it is a problem in their life, or are they parroting what someone else has said to them?

I don’t want to oversimplify addiction by reducing it to dopamine level increase. Even in the above discussion I have oversimplified these pieces of “data.” There are several factors, such as time after drug, that we didn’t compare. And there are several other changes in brain chemistry that contribute to rewarding behavior and where it goes awry. I just want to show an example of how research can be cited and misused to distort things. The study we started out with simply found that we can measure changes in brain chemistry which occur when we do certain activities. It was not designed or intended to be proof that video games are dangerous or addictive.

Saying that something changes your brain chemistry shouldn’t become the new morality. Lots of things change your brain chemistry. But as Loretta Laroche says, “a wet towel on the bed is not the same as a mugging.” We need to keep it complicated and not throw words around like “addiction” and “drug” because we want people to take us seriously or agree with us. That isn’t scientific inquiry. That’s hysteria.

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Breaking Eggs and Holding Your Fire: Some Thoughts on Skills Acquisition

cod-sniper

Not too long ago, I was learning how to fire a sniper rifle in Call of Duty. It wasn’t going very well. I kept firing (which you do by holding down the right-hand trigger) and missing. Or I would use the scope, which you do by holding down the left-hand trigger; and then try to find my target so slowly that I’d get shot long before seeing it. To make thing more complicated, my patient Gordon** was trying to teach me the difference between “hardscoping” which meant to press and hold down the left trigger, and “quickscoping” which was more like a quick tap and release of the scope.

The key to success, I was told, was to locate the target, quickscope it for a second to take aim, and then fire. The source of my failure was that I’d see the target and not bother to scope at all, and just fire. At first I didn’t even know I was doing that. I thought the scope was going up, and it was, but it was going up a split second after I was firing and not before.  After several fumbled attempts Gordon said, “you have to not fire and learn to push the scope first instead.”  I suddenly realized that he was teaching me about impulse control.

Because many parents and therapists are reluctant to play video games, in particular first-person-shooters, they only tend to see them from outside the experience.  What they learn from seeing that way is that FPS are full of violence, mayhem, blood and noise.  Is it any wonder then that they grow concerned about aggression and the graphic nature of the game?  It’s all that is really available to them unless there is a strong plot line and they stick around for that.

But as someone who has been playing video games for years I can tell you things are different from within the experience.  And one of the most counterintuitive things I can tell you from my experience is this: First Person Shooters can help you learn impulse control.  It takes a lot more impulse control to not fire at a target the second you see it.  It takes a lot more impulse control to wait and scope.  And because all of these microdecisions and actions take place within the player’s mind and the game experience, outside observers see violence and aggression alone and overlook the small acts of impulse control the player has to exert over and over again.

Any therapist who has worked with adolescents, people with ADHD, personality disorders and a host of other patient types understands the importance of learning impulse control. That act of mindfulness, that ability to create a moment’s space between the situation and the patient’s reaction to it is necessary to help people do everything from their homework to suicide prevention.  In addition, there is always a body-based aspect to impulse control, however brief or small, and so to create that space is to forge a new and wider relationship between mind and body.

All of this was going on as we were playing Xbox. Over and over again, I was developing, practicing impulse control from behind that virtual sniper rifle.  Again and again I was trying to recalibrate my bodily reflexes and sensations to a new mental model.  Don’t fire.  When my kill score began to rise, it wasn’t because my aim had gotten better, it was because my impulse control had.

Meanwhile, for the past two weeks I have been practicing making omeletes.

In particular, I have been learning how to make an omelette roulée of the kind Julia Childs makes below (you can skip to 3:30 if you want to go right to the pan.)

This type of omelette requires the ability to quickly (in 20-30 seconds) tilt and jerk the pan towards you multiple times, and then tilting the pan even more to flip it.  Doing this over the highest heat the movement needs to be quick and reflexive or you end up tossing a scrambled eggy mess onto the burner.  I can’t tell you how tense that moment is when the butter is ready and you know that once you pour in the egg mixture there is no going back.  To jerk the pan sharply towards you at a tilt seems so counterintuitive, and this is an act of dexterity, meaning that your body is very involved.

In a way an omelette roulée requires impulse control just like Call of Duty in order to learn how to not push the pan but pull it toward you first.  But just as importantly, making this omelette requires the ability to take risks.  It can be scary to make a mess, what happens if the eggs fly into the gas flame?!

Let me tell you, because I now know what happens:  You turn off the flame, wait a minute and wipe off the messy burner.  And then you try again.

Adolescents, all people really, need to master both of these skills of impulse control and risk-taking.  To do so means widening the space in your mind between situation and action, but not let that space become a gaping chasm impossible to cross.  Learning impulse control also happens within experience, not in a special pocket universe somewhere apart from it.  Learning risk-taking requires the same.  And at their core they are bodily experiences, which may be what Freud meant when he said that the ego was first and foremost a body ego.

When I worked in special education settings, I was often called on to restrain children in crisis.  Afterwards we would usually do a postvention: “What was happening?” “How could you do things differently next time?”  We were looking at their experience from the outside, constructing a little pocket universe with words, as if we understood what had been going on in the experience, in the body and psyche of the child.  I doubt these post-mortems taught impulse control.

I wonder what might have happened if we had risked throwing some eggs on the fire and encouraged the kids to play first person shooters or other video games.  If my theory is right, then we would have been cooking.

**Not his real name. Name, age, gender and other identifying information have been altered to preserve confidentiality.

Mike is on vacation until September, which means that he has started talking in the third person at the end of blog posts.  It also means that the next new post will be next month.  He’ll repost an old fave or book excerpt to tide you over in the meantime.

 

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“Can I Kill You Again Today?”: The Psychoanalysis of Player Modes

2057142-shepards

In 1947, Virginia Axline published the first edition of what  was to become a seminal work in the field it was named for, Play Therapy.  In her book she championed the concept of non-directive play, the form of play therapy where the therapist takes in some ways a very Rogerian approach of reflecting rather than directing the play either overtly or subtly.

This is easier said than done, as I learned when I started using it as an intern.  I recall watching a youngster play and describe a family in a horrible car accident.  My first comment was, “are they all right?” covertly signalling to the child that I was anxious in the presence of such violence and the possibility of death.  The child reassured me that the family was okay, and I am convinced that I had essentially ruined that session’s treatment.  Fortunately I was lucky to have an amazing supervisor, Linda Storey (great name for a therapist too!) who helped me to learn how to truly be non-directive.  Over the next year and since I have greeted tornadoes, murder, floods, monster attacks, plane crashes, burning buildings and other disasters with “what happens next?”

Non-directive play therapy is still at it’s heart a two-part invention between the therapist and the patient.  However, unlike some other forms of treatment, it requires the therapist to be able to tolerate a lot of violence and anxiety.  Trying to direct children away from their aggressive fantasies and desires is often rooted in the therapist’s own anxiety about them.  Let’s face it, for many of us death and destruction are scary things.  It isn’t just a rookie mistake to ask the child to make the story turn out “okay,” and yet I think it has never been more urgent for therapists to be able to tolerate violent fantasy and encourage it to unfold in the play.

21st Century Play

Virginia Axline never had to contend with Call of Duty Special Ops, Modern Warfare or Battlefield 3.  What was different about 20th Century play therapy was that the games in the consulting room usually resembled the ones from the child’s everyday life at home or school.  The therapists therefore knew how to play them, and didn’t necessarily need to learn them as they went.  But now we are in the 21st century, where the therapy office often has games from our childhoods rather than those of our patients, and they are very different.

If you are a therapist and never intend to learn to play video games and play them with your patients, you should probably stop reading here; the post won’t be useful to you and I’ll probably annoy you.  But if you don’t plan on using video games with your young patients I hope you’ll consider stopping doing play therapy with children as well.  Certainly stop calling yourself a non-directive play therapist, because you’ve already directed the child’s play away from their familiar games and away from this century.  I actually hope, though, that you will lean into the places that scare you and try to meet your patients where they are at in their play, and for 97% of boys and 94% of girls that means video games.

Video games like Call of Duty and Minecraft are both very useful in both diagnosis and treatment of patients, as I hope to demonstrate by focusing just on one aspect here, that of player modes.  Most video games have a range of player modes, and what the patient chooses can say a lot about their attachment styles, selfobject needs, and object relations.

Solo Play is OK

Like other forms of play, sometimes patients want to play alone, and have me bear witness to their exploits.  They may do so out of initial mistrust, or a yearning for mirroring.  Solo play is looked down on by some therapists, who often think kids using “the computer” are austitic and/or “stuck” in parallel play.  I’d refer you to Winnicott, who taught us that it is a developmental achievement to be alone in the presence of another.  (I’d also refer you to my colleague and therapist Brian R. King who has a lot to say about a strengths-based approach to people on the autistic spectrum, on which he includes himself.)

The Many Reasons to Collaborate.

Some patients want to play with me on the same team in first person shooter games.  The reasons for this can vary.  Some patients want to protect me from their aggression because they are afraid I’ll be scared of it like parents, teachers and other adults may have been.  Other patients want to be on the same team because they want  to have a merger with an idealized parent imago to feel more powerful and able to take on the game.  Still other patients, seen in their daily lives as oppositional or violent, want to play on the same team so they can revive me and have me experience them as nurturing and a force for good in the world.

Some patients  want to have their competition framed by overall collaboration, meaning that they want to get the most or final “kills” but remain on the same team.  Some patients secretly yearn to play on a different team, and may need to “accidentally” change the settings to put us on opposing teams and passively want the game to continue.

Let’s Bring On A World of Hurt.

On the other hand, there are a lot of reasons patients want to compete.  They may want to see if I can stand their aggression and/or desire to win without being annihilated.  They may want to express their sadism by tormenting me for my lack of skill, or alternately project their yearnings for recognition by praising me when I kill them.  They may want to see how I manage my frustration when playing, and interpret that frustration as investment in the game and therefore my relationship with them.  They may be watching very carefully to see how I act when I win or lose.  Do I gloat when I win?  Do I make excuses when I lose?  How might these behaviors be understood by children and adolescents who often feel like they are chronically losing and behind their peers in the game of education?

More questions arise:  Does the patient ask me what mode I want to play or simply decide on one?  Do they modulate their anxiety by playing a combat mode but expressing the desire to stay away from the zombie mode?  By allowing them to do that am I helping them to learn that sometimes life is about choosing the lesser of two anxieties rather than avoiding anxiety altogether?

Multiplayer and Uninvited Guests

In terms of settings, there is some direction on my part, which is part of maintaining the therapeutic frame.  I make it a requirement that we play either locally or in a private game.  And of course this sometimes go wrong, with a random player joining us.

What to do then?  What if we are on an extremely high level and just terminating the game will do more harm than good?  In that case I make sure we are on mute and the our conversation can’t be heard by the added player, and then things get even more interesting in the therapeutic conversation:  Does the patient have any feelings about the new player’s arrival?  What do they imagine the usertag “NavySeal69” means anyway?  Do we help them when they are down or try to ignore them?  How do we feel if they are ignoring us?  Do we team up against them?

Minecraft and the Repetition Compulsion.

I could probably write a whole post or paper on this, but for know let’s talk about creative mode and griefing.  In Minecraft you and other players can build things alone or together.  Other players can also “grief” you, meaning cause you grief by destroying your structures and setting you back after a lot of hard work.   What does it mean when a patient griefs my building, apologizing and promising not to grief it if I rebuild, then griefs it over and over again?  What may be being reenacted here?  Are there adults in the patient’s life who tear her/him down again and again?  When does one give up on any hope for honesty or compassion from the other?  What sort of object are they inviting me to become to them; angry, patient, gullible, limit-setting, mistrustful?

I have used the term child or adolescent here, but exploring the gameplay of adults when they describe it to me is often useful as well.  I often encourage my adult students or gamer readers to do a little self-analysis on their play-style?  What does your preferred mode of moving through video games say about you?  What questions does it invite you to explore?

The goal here is not to give you an explicit case presentation or analysis of one hypothetical patient or game.  Rather, it is to provide you with a Whitman’s Sampler of practice and theory nuggets to give you a taste of the richness you are missing if you don’t play video games with your patients, especially if you are a psychodynamic therapist.  There is a lot that “happens next” if you engage with your patients in 21st century play that has themes you may find familiar:  How do I live in a world that can be hostile to me?  Why should I trust you to be any different?  Will my badness destroy or repulse you?  Will you hurt me if I am vulnerable?  These and dozens of other fascinating and relevant themes emerge in a way that never did for me when I forced kids to endure 45 minutes of the Talking, Feeling, Doing Game.  And what’s more you don’t have to remember to take the “What Do You Think About a Girl Who Sometimes Plays with or Rubs Her Vagina When She’s Alone?” card out of the deck.

I’m not THAT non-directive.  🙂

 

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Automation

papertowel-dispenser

Recently I was washing my hands in a public restroom.  The paper towel dispenser was one of those that automatically dispense.  There was a towel ready to be pulled off; you took it, and the dispenser automatically pushed another towel out for the next user.

I was in the middle of taking my fourth towel when I realized that my hands were long-since dry and that I was taking the towels continuously because the dispenser was offering them to me.

Technology offers itself to us, but technology doesn’t decide whether or not we should use it.  That is and always has been a human decision.  We can forget that, or ignore it, but we do so at our peril.

If the towel dispenser was one of the motion detected sort, the above story would never have happened to me, because I would have always had to exercise my agency to get it going.  Ironically that was what the Greeks meant when they first used the term automatos or αὐτόματος:  It came from , autos (self) and méntis (thought) and meant “self-moving, moving of oneself, self-acting, spontaneous” according to Wiktionary.  It wasn’t until the late 1940s when the term automation became more widely used, by General Motors in reference to their new Automation Department.

Although my towel story might be funny to some (it was to me,) it has some serious implications when we think about social media and digital literacy, in particular for our children.  Let’s take this example:

status updates

One of things that has created a confusion of tongues in social media is the fact that we are bombarded with opportunities to share regardless of what the implication might be if we do.  The Facebook status update box is a great example:  As someone I know once said, “they gave us the box, but they didn’t tell us what to with it.”

What is your status update? Is it how you are feeling?  What you are eating?  What you are doing/thinking/talking about?  If the box tells you to write something in it, do you have to?  If you are not feeling happy, sad or tired, do you leave it blank.  And what if you aren’t grateful for something right now?  The status update can be seen as akin to the towel dispenser:  pushing out prompts for you to think or communicate a certain way, but not telling you how or even that you have the choice to refrain from doing so as well.

In the 21st century, to educate our children and adolescents about personal responsibility and agency is to educate them in digital literacy.  This is the responsibility of adults who themselves were raised in a culture that never trained them how to deal with the increasing automation of society or the way social media has changed our brain, sense of self and the social milieu.

It may not come as a surprise that I have strong opinions about this, and they come in a large part from my training as a clinical social worker.  I believe that social workers have a responsibility to help their clients achieve and improve their digital literacy.  In general if you are a mental health provider I think it is your job to do this.  We are tasked with helping the human being in the social environment, and technology is part of the social environment for the majority of the population we serve.  If you do not know how to use Facebook then you are insufficiently educated to work with families and children in the 21st century.  If you are unaware of geotagging and the risk it poses to domestic violence victims seeking safety from their perpetrators you are putting your clients in jeopardy.  If you are an LGBT-affirmative therapist and you don’t know about Grindr you won’t be effective.  If you are a psychotherapist and you don’t ask about your patients’ use of social media you are missing out on a significant part of their daily interactions, behaviors, thoughts and feelings.

Chances are that if you are reading this blog you are not one of my colleagues who is completely averse to technology, so I hope that you’ll pass on some of this info to your colleagues who are.  To the best of my knowledge there are only two graduate courses that teach social workers about the impact of technology on our clients, and I’m teaching them.  This will have to change if we are to remain relevant to the populations we serve.

Technology is offering itself to our clients every day in hundred of ways.  It is up to us to remind them to pause and remember that they have agency.  If we don’t, then we are the ones who have become the machine.

 

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Saving Ideas

cave painting

Sometime, over 40,000 years ago, someone decided to put images of human hands on the cave pictured above.  It turned out to be a good idea.  This painting has given scientists information on life in the Upper Paleolithic, raised questions about the capacity of Neandrathal man to create art, and sparked debate about which species in the homo genus created it.  Other later cave paintings depict other ideas: Bulls, horses, rhinoceros, people.

I wasn’t there in the Paleotlithic but I doubt that the images we are seeing in caves were the first ones ever drawn.  I imagine that drawing images in sand and other less permanent media happened.  I suspect that the only reason we have cave paintings is because at some point somebody decided they wanted to be able to save their idea, to keep it longer or perhaps forever.

Every day, 7 billion of us have untold numbers of ideas.  So what makes a person decide that an idea is worth saving?  What makes us pause and make a note in our Evernote App or Moleskine journal?  What inspires us to make a video of our idea on YouTube or write a book?  We can’t always be sure that an idea is a “good” one or even what the criteria for a good idea is.  It usually comes down to belief.

In the past several centuries, the ability to save ideas was relegated to the few who were deemed skillful or divinely inspired.  Books were written in monasteries, then disseminated by printing presses, and as ideas became easier to save, more people saved them.  But, and this is very important, saving an idea doesn’t make it a good idea, just a saved one.  Somewhere along the line we began to get the notion that only a few select people were capable of having a good idea, because only a few select people were capable of saving them.  Even in the 21st century, many mental health professionals and educators cling to the notion that peer-reviewed work published in journals is the apex of quality.  If it is written, if it was saved by a select few it must be a good idea.  If you have any doubt of what I’m talking about just Google “DSM V.”

With each leap in human technology comes the power to save more ideas and then spread them.  People who talk about things going viral often forget that an idea has to be saved first, and that in essence something going viral is really a form of society saving an idea.  If anything, technology has improved the democratization of education and ideas.

This makes many of us who grew up in an earlier era nervous and frustrated.  We call the younger generation self-absorbed rather than democratizing.  We grumble, “what makes you think you should blog about your day, take photos of your food, post links to cute kitten videos?”  We may even take smug self-satisfaction that we aren’t contributing to the static.  I think that’s a bad idea, although it clearly has been saved from earlier times.

40,000 years from now, our ideas may take on meanings we never anticipated, like cave drawings.  Why were kittens so important to them?  In the long view I think we remember that people have to believe they have an good idea before they take the leap of faith to save it.  The citizens of the future may debate who saved kitten videos and why, but it will be taken as given that they must have been important to many of us.

What if everyone had the confidence to believe that they had an idea worth saving?  What if everyone had the willingness to believe that it just might be possible that their idea was brilliant?  Each semester I ask the students in my class to raise their hand if they think they can get an A- or higher in the class, and most do.  Then I ask them to raise their hand if they think they can come up with in an idea in this class that could change the world.  I’ve never had more than 3 hands go up.  That’s sad.

This is why I admire the millennials and older groups who take advantage of social media and put their ideas out there.  I doubt that they are all good ideas, but I celebrate the implicit faith it takes to save them.  Anyone, absolutely anyone at all, can have a good idea.  It may not get recognized or appreciated, but now more than ever it can get saved.  Saving an idea is an act of agency.  It is a political act.  Saving an idea is choosing to become just a bit more visible.  On the most basic level saving an idea is a celebration and affirmation of the self.  Think about that, and dare to jot down, draw, record or otherwise save one of your ideas today.  I just did and it feels great.  Then maybe you can even share it with someone else.

What makes a person decide an idea is worth saving?

You do.

 

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Empathy (Re)Training

 

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Last night I was mining Gold Omber in the asteroid belt near Erindur VI, and I can’t begin to tell you what an accomplishment that was. (This post is not just about spaceships, but about pacifists, Ethiopia and education, so non-gaming educators and therapists keep reading.)  OK, let me tell you why it was an accomplishment.  I am talking about playing the MMO EVE Online, which involves piloting spaceships across vast amounts of space in order to mine, trade, build or pirate among other things.  In essence, your spaceship is your character, with the ship’s parts being the equivalent of your armor and weapons in games like World of Warcraft.  But you can only build or use these parts as your pilot acquires skills, ranging from engineering to planetology to cybernetics, so in that way the player’s pilot is the character in the game.  But at the start of the game you’re told that the pilot is actually a clone (this becomes important later on) and as someone was explaining to me last night the whole cloning thing has its own complications once you start using implants to modify individual clones, which you can only do after you’ve trained the skill of Cybernetics.  And why all that is important is because once you use implants you can learn skills more quickly.

If you think that is confusing, try learning how to use the sprawling user interface or UI, which one of my friends says “was made by demons who hate people, hate their hopes and dreams. Know that you are playing with toys made by demons for their amusement and tread lightly.”  Another way of putting it is that you have keep trying to remember what window you opened in the game to do what, and often have multiple windows open simultaneously in order to figure out what you’re doing or buying or training.  There is a robot tutorial program in the game that helps somewhat, but the whole thing is very frustrating and intriguing for the first several hours of game play.  During this time I was ganked repeatedly, lost lots of loot and ore I had mined, as well as a nice spaceship or two.  So to get to the point where I had learned enough skills to be able to warp halfway across the galaxy, lock onto an asteroid, orbit and mine it while defending myself from marauders was extremely exciting.  I was only able to do this because my above-mentioned friend had given me a much bigger and safer ship than I had started out with, as well as lots of instructions on how to do things; and because I was chatting with people in the game who offered great tips.  Of course one of those people then clicked on my profile in chat to then locate me and gank me again (bye-bye nice ship,) but the knowledge is mine to keep.

By now you may be asking “what has any of this got to do with psychotherapy, social work or education?” so I’ll explain.  I had tried EVE months ago, and given up after about a week of on and off attempts, but this past month I have begun teaching an online course for college educators and MSWs about integrating technology into psychotherapy and education.  One of the required exercises in the course is for the students to get a trial account of World of Warcraft and level a character to 20.  There has been a lot of good-natured reluctance and resistance to doing this, in this class and others:  I have been asked to justify this course material in a way I have never had to justify other learning materials to students.   This included several objecting to playing the game because of violent content prior to playing it much or at all.  It’s as if people were not initially able to perceive the course material of World of Warcraft as being in the same oeuvre as required readings or videos.  It is one thing to bring up in your English literature class that you found the violence in “Ivanhoe” or the sex in “The Monk” objectionable after reading it, but I’ve not heard of cases where students have refused to read these books for class based on those objections.  So I was curious, what made video games so different in people’s minds?

Things became easier for several folks after I set up times to meet them in the game world, and help them learn and play through the first few quests.  As I chatted with them and tried to explain the basic game mechanics I realized that I had learned to take for granted certain knowledge and skills, such as running, jumping, and clicking on characters to speak with them.  I started to suspect that the resistance to playing these games was perhaps connected to the tremendous amount of learning that was having to go on in order to even begin to play the game.  In literacy education circles we would call this  learning pre-readiness skills.  Being thrown into a learning environment in front of peers and your instructor was unsettling, immediate, and potentially embarrassing.  And I think being educators may have actually made this even harder.  Education in the dominant paradigm of the 20th and 21st century seeks to create literary critics and professors as the ultimate outcome of education, according to Ken Robinson.  So here are a group of people who have excelled at reading and writing suddenly being asked to learn and develop an entirely new and different skill set within the framework of a college course:  Of course they were frustrated.

So I started playing EVE again not just to have fun, but to have a little refresher course in empathy.  I have leveled to 90 in WoW, so I know how to do things there, and had begun to forget how frustrating and bewildering learning new games can be.  In EVE I have been clueless and failing repeatedly, and getting in touch with how frustrating that learning curve can be.  I have also been re-experiencing how thrilling it is the first time I make a connection between too concepts or actions in the game:  When I realized that there was a difference between my “Assets” and my “Inventory” I wanted to shout it from the rooftops.  I have begun to see and help my students reflect on similar “learning rushes” when they get them as well.  They are now , in short, rocking the house in Azeroth.

We forget how thrilling and confusing it can be to learn sometimes, especially to the large population on the planet that doesn’t necessarily want to be a college professor or psychotherapist.  We forget that our patients and students are asked to master these frustrations and resistances every day with little notice or credit.

There is a village in Ethiopia, where 20 children were given Xoom tablet computers last year.  The researchers/founders of One Laptop Per Child dropped them off in boxes to these children, who had never learned to read or write.  They were offered no instruction and the only restriction placed on the tablet was to disable the camera.  Within minutes the children had opened the box and learned how to turn the computers on; within weeks they were learning their ABCs and writing; and within months they had learned how to hack into the tablet and turn the camera back on, all without teachers.  This story inspires and terrifies many.  It is inspiring in that it tells the story of what children can learn if they are allowed to be experimental and playful.  It is terrifying because if all this was done without a teacher to lecture or a therapist to raise self-esteem, it raises the question “do we still need them?”

Having played EVE, and taught academics in World of Warcraft, let me assure you that the world still needs teachers and therapists.  But the world needs us to begin to learn how to teach and help in a different way.  If EVE had nothing but online tutorials I would have probably struggled more and given up.  I needed to remain social and related to ask for help, listen to tips, and get the occasional leg up.  We need to retrain ourselves in empathic attunement by going to the places that scare or frustrate us, even if those places are video games.  The relationship is still important; to inspire, encourage and enjoy when learning happens in its myriad forms.  But we need to remember that there are many literacies and that not all human beings aspire to teach an infinitely recurring scholasticism to others.  We need to remember how embarrassing it can be to “not get it,” and how the people we work with every day are heroic that they can continue to show up to live and be educated in a system that humiliates them.

What’s exciting and promising, though, is this simple fact:  Learning is happening everywhere, all the time!  Whether it’s a village in Ethiopia, Elwynn Forest in Azeroth, or in orbit around Erindur VI; learning is happening.  Across worlds real and imagined, rich and poor, learning IS happening.

And we get to keep all the knowledge we find.

 

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You’re The Reason Building Your Business Is So Hard

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Recently I was asked by a student to take some time and talk with her about her career options. She was trying to plan for her career post-graduate school, and struggling some with the vicissitudes of a graduate program in mental health. Such vicissitudes, once you commit to studying in the field of your choice, are out of your control. Students are often told what to learn, how to learn it, where to intern, and what kind of internship they can have. Want to learn psychodynamic theory? Sorry, school X doesn’t believe in it, so if you go there there may be one or no mention of it in your foundation work. Want to work at a leading hospital? Sure, you and 100 other students from the schools in your area; so apply, but don’t count on it. So, in graduate school, students like my student often have to like it or leave it.

This disempowers the budding therapist in many ways, not the least of which is that it conditions her to take her cues from others even beyond graduate school. It is hard to learn that you have the power to build your career and business after having been taught that the schools, placements and agencies are the ones who make the rules.

If you are out of school, you have more power than you think, and therefore more responsibility than you may want.

Many therapists want to avoid taking responsibility for their businesses. No sooner do we get out of a school or agency then we start to recreate an agency of our own devising. We create our own set of disempowering expectations, and there are usually plenty of people around to collude with us in this. I call them disempowermentors.

Disempowermentors in the mental health field are the ones that tell you all sorts of rules about how things work. They’ll tell you you can’t build a practice without being on insurance panels. They’ll tell you you need to work in our field for 10 years to build up a reputation before you can open a practice. They’ll tell you you should sublet a few hours and not jump in to a full-time practice. None of these things are true, but most of them are usually fear-based. They are usually the way the disempowermentors did things, either because they recreated their own inner agency and/or because they listened to disempowermentors themselves. If my student isn’t careful, she’ll end up listening to one of these folks, and set herself and her future business back a few years. She’ll have a structure, but it will be one that restricts her choices rather than increases them.

Take a look at who you are listening to: Are they disempowermentors? (One sure clue is that disempowermentors almost always look more tired than happy, more miserable than inspirational.)

One example of someone whom the disempowermentors would say is doing everything wrong is my consultee Lindsey Walker. Lindsey is going right into private practice after finishing graduate school. Lindsey is working on building a full-time practice. Lindsey isn’t in any insurance networks. And things are starting to happen for her. This is largely because Lindsey is very creative and responsible. She has started a blog, Waking The Image, which combines photography and essays on psychodynamic theory. She also just finished writing her first e-book Love Over Trauma: Healing With Your Partner on helping couples recover when one or both of them has trauma in their past.

None of these projects occur in a separate pocket universe: Lindsey works daily on these projects and other tasks that we come up with in the course of our work together. I send her a list of things she’s committed to, and within the next several days she does them. That is why her work is slowly but surely getting noticed and her practice growing. She isn’t waiting passively in her office sublet for the phone to ring. She isn’t waiting passively for insurance panels to accept her, or accepting the fee they want to pay her. Lindsey knows that she is responsible for the success of her business. She is investing time and money into building it, not subletting 2 hours somewhere cheap and hoping she’ll get a client or two after her “day job.” Lindsey made the decision to make building her business her day job. I should also mention that she is not independently wealthy, and that this venture has been a risky and courageous one.

So take a look at your career. Are you happy with it? Is being safe worth it? Are you investing time and money into building your business? Are you taking risks?

If you answered no to those questions, then you are the reason building your business is so hard. You aren’t in grad school any more. You choose to apply for a job, accept it, or strike out on your own. You choose whether to make building your business your day job and make whatever sacrifices you need to make to do that. You decide whether or not to invest in an office, a consultant, or other business expenses. You decide to wait passively for someone to pay you a fraction of your fee, or actively market and network for hours and days and weeks. You decide whether to contribute a blog, book, talk or idea to the world like Lindsey; or not to contribute anything without permission from somebody else. You decide whether to confuse worry with effort and wishing with doing.

Lots of things are possible for you. Owning your own business is neither easy or safe, but it is possible. It takes lots of effort and doing. It’s risky, but no one is making you do it or holding you back. It’s up to you to decide.

 

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Want To Help Stop Youth Cyberbullying? Let Your Kids Raid More.

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The above title is misleading.  In fact it is as misleading as the term cyberbullying, which is an umbrella term used from experiences which range drastically.  “Cyberbullying” has been used to describe the humiliation of LGBT youth via video; the racial hatred of Sikhs on Reddit, the systematic harassment and suicide of a teenage girl by a neighboring peer’s mother; a hoax wherein a Facebooker pretended to be a woman’s missing (for 31 years); and the bad Yelp reviews of a restauranteur in AZ.

Wait, huh?

My point, exactly:  All of the things described above are different in scope, intentionality, form of media used, duration, and impact.  We need to keep this complicated.  This is not to take away from the horrific acts that people  have perpetuated with social media, or excuse them.  Rather I think we need to help kids and their parents find more nuanced ways to make sense of the way newer technologies are impacting us.

Social media amplifies ideas, feelings, and conflicts.  It often dysregulates family systems.   Growing up, many family members didn’t need to learn the level of digital literacy that today’s world requires.  Parents may be tempted to put their children in a lengthy or permanent internet lockdown.  I hear the threats, or read them, all the time:  No screens.  You’re unplugged.  She’s grounded from Facebook.

Please don’t do that.

I’ve worked with a number of young adults who have had the experiences of being on the receiving end of hatred, stalking, harassment and intrusion delivered via the internet.  And thank goodness that their parents didn’t unplug them as kids.  Because they stayed online they got to:

  • learn how to ignore haters
  • see/hear others stand up for them in a social media setting
  • come to the defense of a peer themselves
  • increase their ability to meet verbal aggression with cognition
  • make the hundreds of microdecisions about whether to “fight this battle”
  • seek out support from other peers
  • form strong online communities and followings that helped them cope with and marginalize the aggressors

More and more, online technologies are becoming a prevalent form of communication, and to take away access is to remove the hearing and voice of youth.  To do this is disempowerment, not protection.

I’ve said before that parents need to take an engaged approach with kids in order to be there to help kids understand and process the conflicts that are communicated through and amplified by social media.  But this time I want to go further, and suggest that one way to help kids achieve digital literacy in terms of social skills is to let them play more multiplayer video games.

Many of you probably saw that coming, but for those of you who didn’t, let me explain.  21st century video games are themselves a powerful form of social media.  Multiplayer games allow individuals to band together as guilds, raids, platoons and other groups to achieve higher endgame goals.  Collaboration is built into them as part of the fun and as necessary to meet the challenges.

There are exceptions to this, but it has been my experience that people don’t begin systematic personal attacks on each other when they are in the middle of downing Onyxia.  They are too busy joining forces to win.  I am convinced that much hatred we see in the developed world is there in large part because of boredom and apathy.  Games provide an alternative form of engagement to hatin’

Look, I’m not saying that people playing games never say sexist things, swear, or utter homophobic comments.  But I can say that I have heard more people, adults and children, stand up to hatred in World of Warcraft than I ever have in the 2 decades I worked in public school settings.  I’ve seen racism confronted numerous times in guild chat, seen rules for civility created and enforced over and over, always citing a variation of  the same reason:  “We’re all here to have fun, so please keep the climate conducive to that.”

Video games provide powerful interactive arenas for diverse groups of people to collaborate or compete strategically.  They capture our interest with a different sort of drama than the sort that we see our youth struggle with in other settings.  In fact, for many individuals video games provide a welcome respite from the drama that occurs in those other settings.

Social media does indeed amplify nastiness, harassment and hatred.  It also amplifies kindness, hope, generosity and cooperation.  If we don’t lean into social media with our kids, they’ll never know how to use it to amplify goodness in the world.  Worse yet, if we cut them off from connecting with the world online we’ll deprive them of the necessary opportunities to recognize and choose between good and evil.

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What To Do When Your Therapist Turns Into A Kitten

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I have been working with patients online for about 6 years, and even now I have some interesting surprises in the work.  Recently I was meeting online with one of my long-term patients for their regular session.  I use my laptop but have a better web camera and monitor hooked up to it.  The bigger monitor allows me to see the patient’s image, but also keep an eye on my image so I can see what the patient is seeing.  The laptop monitor stays dark, and the laptop’s built-in webcam goes unused, at least most of the time.  But this particular day the laptop webcam decided to switch on 15 minutes into the appointment, and hijacked the webcam I was using.  So from what my patient could see, one minute I was there listening empathically, and the next minute I had disappeared.

Those of you who enjoy object relations theory should be enjoying this story by now.  Wait, it gets better.

As I was explaining to my patient why I’d disappeared, I was trying to turn off the laptop’s built-in webcam.  Instead I turned on a special program the laptop has that replaces the screen with the image of a kitten, the one seen above in fact.  Suddenly I was not invisible, but a kitten.  Better yet, the kitten was lip synching and moving its mouth when I spoke.  Fortunately this wasn’t happening at a particularly delicate moment in the therapy, and we both had a good laugh at it.  I apologized to my patient and said, “you know, I studied a lot of things at grad school, but they never taught me what I’m supposed to do if I turn into a kitten when I’m with a patient.”

Many psychotherapists have the sort of relationship with technology that resembles the folks they treat with Borderline Personality Disorder:  They alternately overidealize and devalue tech, often in the same breath.  “Skype” will be the way we salvage our dwindling practices, we’ll be able to reach people all over the planet, make our own hours and go completely self-pay because most insurance doesn’t cover it.  It will be wonderful.  That’s the overidealizing part, the devaluing part is more subtle.

Because I do a growing amount of therapy and supervision online, I often get requests for a consultation session to help therapists who want to do online therapy and “need my help getting on Skype.”  At this point I try to explain that Skype is not HIPAA-compliant, and that there is more to it that getting a webcam, but here’s where the devaluing of technology comes in.  It’s as if some folks think that the only thing one needs to know in order to be an online therapist is how to download a program and turn on the camera.

Most therapists who decide to get Basic EMDR training wouldn’t bat an eye at needing to go through two weekend trainings and a minimum of 20 didactic and 20 hours of supervised practice in order to be certified.  And yet many therapists don’t consider that working online and with emerging technologies requires more than learning how to flick a switch.  It’s sort of the way people often treat the IT guy at the workplace:  With one breath we describe ourselves to him as “clueless” about technology; and yet we really want him to stay in that basement office until we need him to come up and fix our email.

Graduate programs teach us next to nothing about how to use technology in our practice, except perhaps to warn us to avoid it at all costs.  Think about it.  Do you know what to do if you disappear in the middle of talking with a patient?  Do you know what to do if you turn into a talking kitten?  More importantly do you know how to prevent yourself from turning into a talking kitten, or turn yourself back from one if you do?  And perhaps most importantly, do you know how to help patients anticipate the glitches with virtual therapy, process the unique empathic failures that can arise, and create a good-enough holding environment online?

People like my colleagues DeeAnna Merz-Nagel and Kate Anthony founded the Online Therapy Institute for just this reason.  They offer dozens of different 5 hour courses on various technologies, from video conferencing to text chat to conducting therapy in virtual realities like Second Life.  The takeaway here is that there is a lot more to learn about online therapy than downloading Skype.

Look, I am not trying to discourage people from doing online therapy, in fact the opposite.  I know that it can be a very effective treatment modality, and easily accessed by a growing global population.  I’m not even trying to get you to sign up for consultation with OTI or me or anyone in particular.  The point I am trying to make is that it is an additional skill set that needs to be learned and integrated into your clinical repertoire.

Psychotherapists don’t just buy chairs and a couch and start talking.  EMDR isn’t just wiggling your fingers in traumatized people’s eyes. Both take time, case supervision and specialized training.

Online therapy, and integrating social technologies into your therapy practice is no different.

 

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