The Lava Expert

lava cave

“Sometimes it is the people no one imagines anything of who do the things that no one can imagine.”  –The Imitation Game

Shortly before I fell into the lava I began a conversation with an eleven year old girl, we’ll call her Sal.  This was a while back, on a Minecraft server I play on from time to time.  My name when I play Minecraft has the word “therapist” in it, and Sal had noticed this.

“Hey, are you really a therapist?” Sal asked via our server text chat.

“Yes I am.”  I typed back.  I had been mining obsidian and using a river to cool the lava so I could chip away at it with my diamond pickaxe.  In the time it took to type my reply, I managed to fall into the river and get washed into the lava.  I watched myself go up in flames, and with me most of my loot.  There is always a chance though, when one falls into lava this way, that some of one’s loot can be thrown clear.  So upon respawning I quickly made my way back to the scene of my demise as we continued our conversation.

“Oops, burned up,” Sal said, as the server had announced just that when I fell in the lava.  “Are you the kind of therapist that talks to kids about their problems?”

“Kids and adults both, yes.”

“My mother wants me to see a therapist,” Sal said.

“Why?” asked another one of the kids on the server.

“She says I have problems with friends,” Sal said.  By this point I had returned to the lava pool.  There was no loot that had survived.

“Sal,” I said.  “Everyone needs help with their problems from time to time.  That’s why there are 7 billion people on the planet, to help each other out.”

For some reason that made quite an impact with the other players.  “Wow, you must be an expert!!” one typed.  I’m not sure how he’d come to that conclusion.

“I’m certainly not an expert on lava,” I replied, and fortunately the conversation went back to the business of mining after some sympathetic emoticons.

I have no problem talking with kids about therapy, or being a psychotherapist.  If I did, I certainly wouldn’t have the word in my userid.  And it wasn’t even that I was “off duty.”  I’ve had many conversations in chats over the years and heard a range of problems.  In part I was a little protective of Sal’s right to privacy, although experience has again shown me that kids are often less hung up on therapy than adults, and in many ways are often more trusting of psychotherapy than adults are.  Mostly the reason I wanted us all to get back to playing was that I had caught myself sounding “educational.”

*  *  *  *  *

In play if there is any such thing as an expert it is certainly not the therapist, or adults in general.  Virginia Axline, knew this.  In her book Play Therapy she writes, “Non-directive therapy is based upon the assumption that the individual has within himself…  the ability to solve his own problems satisfactorily.”  (Axline, 1947)  My trainees are often as surprised to find that I am friend to both psychodynamic and solution-focused theories as I am to find that they have been taught the two have irreconcilable differences.

As I see it, my job is often to be a unique experience in the lives of patients.  “It is a unique experience,” Axline writes, “for a child to find adult suggestions, mandates, rebukes, restraints, criticisms, disapprovals, support, intrusions gone.” (Axline, 1947)  And by the time people come to us as adolescents or adults, those suggestions, mandates, rebukes, restraints, criticisms, disapprovals, etc. have become internalized.  By adulthood, many of us feel as if we lack expertise in anything, except perhaps screwing our lives up.

Education has increasingly played a hand in this.  We do not teach so that our students learn to think independently and feel resourcefully.  Instead we teach them to think like someone else.  Critical thinking and exploration become supplanted by the sense that education has to give us something tangible in a materialistic sense:  A good grade; a profitable job; published ideas or maybe if we really drink the Koolaid admiration from other academics.

One thing that is so enjoyable about Minecraft for many is its’ open sandbox environment.  There is an endgame you can play if you want, but there are also myriad variations of play you can do instead.  Sal and millions of other children and adults can range freely through such open and creative spaces without “experts.”  Education certainly can happen there, but often in a lightly curated if not autodidactive way.  People have created versions of Westeros, Middle-Earth, Panem or their own creations.  There are PvP versions where conflict and combat, stealth and griefing hold sway; fantasy realms where people can role-play.  It is a topsy-turvy world where children can have the most wisdom, and we adult experts can trip and fall into lava.

*  *  *  *  *

In a world obsessed with measuring outcomes, psychotherapy can have a rough time of it.  If Sal ever goes to therapy, she will have to be labeled as ill somehow if her mother wants insurance to help pay for it.  Notes will have to be written, treatment plans planned, goals and objectives filed away so bean-counters can determine that Sal should get 14 beans-worth of help.  It’s hard for me to get too angry at the bean-counters though, over the past 25 years I’ve met a few of them and they don’t seem too happy either.

Education fares little better, with things like the Common Core which tells us what should be taught; standardized testing which masquerades as achievement; and trigger warnings which are supposed to warn students of upsetting content as if they somehow were entitled to get through the mind-altering experience of learning without ever being upset.

It takes bravery to stand up to this.  To let the individual chart their own course, make their own mistakes, draw on their own core.  For the therapist and educator it takes bravery to get out of the way, to radically reflect the developing self.  I do believe that each one of us needs help throughout our lives; but that help needs to be asked for lest we run the risk of telling others what to do and implying they aren’t up to the task of living their own lives.

*  *  *  *  *

Many therapists, social workers, and teachers I have met chose to become members of those professions at least in part as an expression of admiration for their own therapists, social workers and teachers.  They had no interest in falling into the lava ever again, so they started focusing on helping other people out.  It’s a thankless job if you are going to go through it secretly hoping to be thanked.  I’m not sure I’ve ever had someone I work with refer to me as an “expert” unless they were being facetious about some blunder I’d just made.  And I’ve made many.  As an apotheosis, being a psychotherapist or academic is rather anticlimactic, not because the work is devoid of meaning or value, but rather because if we truly place such people on a divine pedestal it needs a steady stream of troubled people to hold it steady.

Perhaps an alternative for therapists, social workers, educators and our ilk is to think of ourselves as “lava experts.”  We have some acquaintance with falling into pits, being consumed by intense feelings, losing all our, erm, loot.  These are human experiences.  This is not a secret to anyone, and I doubt most people would put their trust in someone who knows nothing of failure, obsession, overwhelm or grief.

What’s more is we’ve fallen into lava, often the same pit again and again!  We know something of the repetition compulsion.  We have let our yearning for whatever we think we need lead us to risky or self-defeating behaviors.  We can talk to people about their problems, because we are people who have problems ourselves.  We’ve been burned.  Minecraft miners know mining deep is risky:  We know what we’re doing even up to that moment our bones ignite.

Rather than being an expert on a pedestal, accept that you will tumble into fire, again and again, looking outside of yourself for what is precious.  Straight A’s, that book you published, six or seven figures–There’s a little Gollum in all of us.  It’s what makes us forget mindfulness, build empires, win arguments or wars.  No one was ever oppressed by play, only the lack of imagination that comes from the absence of it.

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Using Gaming & Gamification in Clinical Practice

What does “gamification” mean, and what is its relevance to mental health practice?  In this video of a conversation I had at University at Buffalo with Charles Syms, I take a stab at answering those questions.  This is just a start, and hopefully by the end of the video you can begin to see how applying principles of game design could be therapeutic for people dealing with issues ranging from trauma to executive functioning challenges to substance abuse and beyond.

 

 

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Gamer-Affirmative Practice: Today’s Play Therapy

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The importance of play is universal, and in many ways the nature of play is timeless.  That said, there is a lot to learn about video games as 21st-century play, especially if you are a play therapist.  Adding 21st-century forms of play to your repertoire can be daunting.  With so many naysayers in the mental health profession, avoidance of learning the new takes the form of contempt prior to investigation.  With video games being low-hanging fruit for political arguments ranging from gun control to teen bullying, many social workers, psychologists and counselors give in to the media hype and spend far more time demonizing or ignoring this form of play than they do understanding it.

Recently my colleagues at the University at Buffalo made it a point to take a gamer-affirmative stance and offer a beginning piece of continuing education on integrating video games as play therapy in the form of a podcast.  In it my friend, colleague, and yes, fellow video game player Anthony Guzman and I have a beginning conversation about just that.  Have a listen:

inSocialWork® Episode 144 – Michael Langlois: Gamer-Affirmative Practice: Today’s Play Therapy

 

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Works, Life and Marshmallows: Iterative Design

marshmallow

They say the journey of a thousand miles begins with a single marshmallow.  Ok, I say that, and more specifically I am talking about your life, job or relationship rather than a journey.  I am coming back to my practice from a brief sabbatical, and have been noticing that while many things are going to stay the same, a few are changing as well.  I’ll get back to the marshmallow in a minute.

One thing I learned on my sabbatical is that I definitely want to continue my therapy practice.  As I said to some friends on Facebook this week, “You know, I’m kind of grateful that I get to challenge the self-hatred of others for a living.”  As a clinical social worker and psychotherapist I get paid to do that.  One thing I also decided on my leave was to withdraw from the last managed care insurance panel I was on.  It made no sense to continue to decrease the time I could be seeing people due to paperwork and bureaucratic hassles, and it made no financial sense to have a waiting list of people who are willing to pay my full fee and also deserve treatment just so I could work at half my rate.  I have always built pro bono or sliding scale slots into my practice because I have a commitment to serving a diverse population, so why was I doing that and letting an insurance company slide the remaining hours of my week?

Part of the answer to this and most “why-have-I-been-doing-this-this-way-when-it-doesn’t-work-in-my-favor?” questions is fear. Most of us are afraid of change.  Whether we are staying in an abusive relationship, having difficulty getting sober, flunking out of college or missing days at work, most of us have moments when we see what we are doing to ourselves and ask the above question.  And then we often resume whatever the pattern is, leaving an interesting question unanswered and instead turning it into self-recrimination, which is really just evasion.  Another part of the answer is that we often act is if we only get one shot at answering the question of life satisfaction.  Here comes the marshmallow.

Invented by Peter Skillman of Palm, Inc. and popularized by Tom Wujec of Autodesk, the Marshmallow Challenge may be familiar to some of you:  “It involves the task of constructing the highest possible free-standing structure with a marshmallow on top. The structure must be completed within 18-minutes using only 20 sticks of spaghetti, one yard of tape, and one yard of string.” (per Wikipedia)  You can call it an exercise, or play, but in either event the creators of the challenge have observed something very interesting about how different groups tend to approach it.  Children tend to make a first structure, stick the marshmallow on top, and then repeat the process over and over, refining it as they go.  Adults tend to engage in group discussions, arguments, power plays and plans to produce one structure built once to which the marshmallow is added.  In other words they tend to approach it derivatively rather than iteratively.

Iterative design is a method of creating a thing or addressing a problem by making a prototype (first attempt,) testing it, analyzing the prototype, and then refining it.  Rinse and repeat.  Iterative design isn’t good for everything: As parents know, often there is not time in the world for everything to get done in 18 minutes or before the school bus gets here.  But a life built on derivative design alone is destined for stagnation and rigidity.

Derivative design, as the name suggests, takes something from a pre-existing something-else, whether it be a rule, materials, social construction or interpretation of the something-else.  When you psychoanalyze a patient’s dream and interpret it as a manifestation of their Oedipus Complex, you are deriving your interpretation and their dream from the something-else of Freud, who in turn derived his Oedipal Conflict theory from the something-else of Greek mythology.  Derivative design can save time and effort in many important ways, by collapsing cultural memes and thinking and transmitting them forward through time from Sophocles to your office.  But as feminist thinkers and cultural critics have shown us, we might have arrived at a different “complex” if Audre Lord et al had been in on the prototyping of it.

Derivative thinking left unchecked can get you in a rut.  One of my most recent examples of this comes from The Little Prince, where he encounters the drunkard:
“- Why are you drinking? – the little prince asked.
– In order to forget – replied the drunkard.
– To forget what? – enquired the little prince, who was already feeling sorry for him.
– To forget that I am ashamed – the drunkard confessed, hanging his head.
– Ashamed of what? – asked the little prince who wanted to help him.
– Ashamed of drinking! – concluded the drunkard, withdrawing into total silence.
And the little prince went away, puzzled.
‘Grown-ups really are very, very odd’, he said to himself as he continued his journey.”

Everything derives from the previous thing, but in the end it sometimes gets us nowhere.

We all get in these difficult spirals.  A good therapist or supervisor can point them out to us and then encourage us to become iterative in our design:

  1. So what are you going to do this time?
  2. How did that work out?
  3. So what are you going to do differently?

Therapists starting their private practices also come to see me, often stuck in derivative thinking:

-I need my NPI number.
-Ok, why?
-To get on Medicare.
-Ok, because?
-So I can get on insurance panels.
-Ok, why?
-So I can get patients who will pay me so I can rent an office so I can have an address to register for my NPI.

If you are one of my consultees reading this rest assured I am NOT talking about you in particular:  I have had this conversation a hundred times with people.  We get indoctrinated into the world of managed care and get, well, managed.  In this case, I usually recommend the consultee start by imagining what kind of office space they want.  Answers have varied and included: Sunny, exposed beams, plants, yellow paint, toys, music system, waiting room with receptionist, friendly colleagues in suite, accessible to public transportation, elevator, warm colors, cool colors, and all sorts of other iterations.

Once you have a mental prototype you can either build or design your office, or find and rent it.  Again I tell folks to walk around the areas they want to work in, find buildings that look interesting to them, then walk inside and ask to speak with someone about seeing a unit.  Testing involves going to see several spaces.  Then they can analyze the results: Does the space look like it would become what they imagine it to be furnished? Are there things about their ideal that need to be discarded? Do they now realize that they could be even more wild in their expectations?

This is just one example of the ways that iterative design can open up possibilities.  But be warned, iterative design can be daunting for many of us raised in our current education system.  We have been trained to create one product presented in final form with the expectation that we will be graded on that product alone. Everything becomes about that one paper or exam, which is often more about regurgitation rather than innovation.

I have colleagues who take my breath away with the number of projects and ideas they are consistently throwing out there to see what happens:  It takes guts to do that.  I myself often am afraid that the Project Police are going to pop out and say, “What happened to your idea of a Minecraft group?  Shame on you for proposing it and not completing that project!  You are not allowed any more ideas until you show us you can carry that one out.”

Sound ridiculous? Of course it is, but does it sound familiar to you as well?  If it does, go out and buy yourself some spaghetti, tape and marshmallows:  The quality of your job, relationship and life may depend on it.

Interested in setting up a consult for your practice?  I have some openings come March.  Like this post? I can speak in person too, check out the Press Kit for Public Speaking info. And, for only $4.99 you can buy my book. You can also Subscribe to the Epic Newsletter!

No Matter How You Feel, You Still Failed

Game_Over

Psychotherapists are often people who prefer to deal with feelings in their workings with people.  Feelings are important, and being empathically attuned to how patients are feeling is equally important.  We are taught to explore the patient’s feelings, imagine ourselves into their lived experience, and validate that experience.

This is often where we become disconnected from other professionals we collaborate with, such as educators.  Be it Pre-K or graduate school, educators are charged with working with students to learn and grow as a whole person.  It’s not that they aren’t concerned with feelings, they just can’t get hung up on them to the exclusion of everything else.

To be fair, psychotherapy has a long history of taking a broader view on the individual as well.  A famous psychoanalyst, Winnicott, once responded to a patient of his who was expressing feelings of hopelessness by saying something to the effect of “sometimes when I am sitting with you I feel hopeless too, but I’m not going to let that get in the way of continuing to work with you.”

But often in the past decade or two, feelings have held sway over everything.  Students don’t complete their assignments because they felt overwhelmed and still expect to pass the course.  Adults feel emotionally exhausted and miss work or are late to it.  Children feel angry at the injustice of chores and don’t do them but still want their allowance.

A criticism I often hear toward video games is that they encourage people to believe that they can always just reset, do over and have another shot.  But implicit in this criticism is the fact of something I feel video games actually do better than many of us sometimes:  They acknowledge the reality of failure.

When we play video games, we are failing 80% of the time.  Failing in the sense of Merriam Webster’s definitions including:

  • to not succeed : to end without success
  • to not do (something that you should do or are expected to do)
  • to fall short <failed in his duty>
  • to be or become absent or inadequate
  • to be unsuccessful

In video games the reality of this is driven home to us by a screenshot:

minecraft71

 

 

warcraft

 

 

pac man

 

You can feel any way you’d like about it, angry, sad, annoyed, blase, frustrated with a touch of determination.  But no matter how you feel you still failed.

In life outside games, many of us have a hard time accepting the reality principle when it comes to failing at something.  We think we can talk, think, or feel our way out of failing to meet expectations.  My own predilection is that of a thinker, which is probably why I became a psychodynamic psychotherapist and educator.  I often waste a lot of time trying to think (or argue) myself into a new reality, which just boils down to not accepting the reality principle.  I notice the same with patients, colleagues and students, who miss deadlines, avoid work, come late to class and then try their best to think or feel their way out of it.

The first class each semester I tell my students, who are studying to be social workers and psychotherapists, that the most frequent complaint I get as an instructor is “I feel put on the spot by him.”  I assure them that this is a valid feeling and actually reflects the reality that I will put each and every one of them on the spot.  I will ask them tough questions, I will point out that they are coming late to class, I will disagree with ideas that seem erroneous to me.  Because if they think it is ok to be late or avoid thinking through a problem or confrontation in class, how in the world will they ever be a decent psychotherapist or social worker?  If the single mother you are working with wants to know how to apply for WIC, and you say you feel put on the spot by her question, that is a valid feeling AND you are useless to her.  If your therapist was 15 minutes late every week I hope you’d fire him.  And when you are conducting a family session and someone discloses abuse it is unprofessional to say “I’m feeling overwhelmed and sad right now, can you ask somebody else to go next?”

These sort of disconnects doesn’t happen overnight.  It comes from years of being enabled by well-intentioned parents and yes, mental health providers who focus on feelings to the exclusion of cognition and behavior, and worse, try to ensure that their children grow to adulthood feeling a constant sense of success.  When I hear self psychology-oriented folks talk it is almost always about mirroring and idealizing, and never about optimal frustration.  And I suspect that this is because we have become so focused on feelings and success that we are preventing people from experiencing optimal frustration at all.

The novelist John Hersey has said “Learning starts with failure; the first failure is the beginning of education.”  We commence to learn because reality has shown us that we lack knowledge or understanding.  That’s the good news.  We’ve woken up!  In this light I regard video games as one of the most consistent learning tools available to us.  When that fail happens and that screen goes up you can try to persuade it to cut you some slack, flatter or bully it, weep pleadingly for it to change to a win, but no matter how you feel, you still failed.  And because that reality is so starkly there, and because the XBox or PS3/4 doesn’t get engaged in your drama, that feeling will eventually dissipate and you will either try again, or give up.

Because that is in a lot of ways the conflict we’re trying to avoid isn’t it?  We want to avoid looking reality square in the face and taking responsibility for what comes next.  We want to keep the feelings flowing, the drama going, and we are willing to take entire groups of people and systems with us.  If we are lucky they put their feet down, but more often then not they want to avoid conflict too, and the problem just continues.

So here’s a confession:  I have failed at things.  I have ended a task without success.  I have not done things I was expected to do.  I have fallen short, been inadequate and been unsuccessful at stuff.  And nobody took away my birthday.  I’m still around doing other things, often iterations of the previous failures, quite successfully.

If you are a parent or educator please take a lesson from video games.  Start saying “Game Over” to those in your care sometimes.  If they can try again great.  If they want to read up on some strategy guides or videos to learn how to do it better, awesome.  But please stop capitulating to their desire to escape reality on the illusory lifeboats of emotional expression, rationalization or verbal arguments.  As Mrs. Smeal says in “Benny and Joon,” “when a boat runs ashore, the sea has spoken.”  Reality testing is probably the most important ego function you can help someone develop, please don’t avoid opportunities to do so.

Nobody likes to experience failure, I know it feels awful.  But to move through it to new realizations can be very liberating, and in time become more easily bearable.  And I truly believe that success without past failures feels pretty hollow.  When I play through a video game from start to finish without a fail I don’t feel like a winner.  I feel cheated.

 

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Dopey About Dopamine: Video Games, Drugs, & Addiction

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

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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Continuing Education From Pax East

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For those of you who may not know, Pax East is a yearly convention here in Boston celebrating all things video game. This year I was so fortunate to have the opportunity to present there on “Rethinking Gaming Addiction.” If you are interested in seeing what the presentation was about, you can view the Prezi here:

 

 

For those with the stamina, you can find a video of the presentation here:

 

 

And if you want to just listen to it in MP3 form, you can do so here:

 

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Live At The Cooney Center: “Improving Our Aim: A Psychotherapist’s Take On Video Games & Violence”

passetti_400-150x150

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Technology and Time Management: Some Simple Tips

Sometimes people get the impression from my presentations, book, or this blog that I think that there is no such thing as too much use of video games, social media & technology, so let me set the record straight.  I do think that there is such a thing as problem usage.  One of the first questions I get when I speak to therapists, educators or parents usually is, “how much time spent playing video games, texting, or using Facebook is too much?”  The concern is real and understandable, but the problem is the way the question is framed.

Other than sleep, and maybe meditation, I can’t think of any activity that is good to do for 8 hours straight on a regular basis.  Nothing, not gaming, sitting on an airplane, playing hopscotch, calisthenics, drinking alcohol or water, studying, or mowing the lawn, will be without adverse effects if you do it constantly for 8 hours straight.  What makes most things problematic is not the quantity of time, but the quality of your life as a result of the usage.  If you were to play hopscotch for any length of time such that it lost you your job, ruined your school performance, jeopardized your relationships with loved ones, or made you feel more negatively about yourself, those qualitative concerns are what would make it problematic.  That said, another qualitative factor in determining whether using technology has become problematic for you can be its impact on your time management skills.

I strongly suspect that people have had time management challenges for as long as there have been sundials.  And we do know from history that each introduction of a new technology is followed by an exponential increase in its use, which in turn creates feelings of overwhelm.  And these feelings of being overwhelmed are what necessarily precede our developing the mental, physical and technological skills to manage the new use.  The earliest known book indexes showed up about 150 years after the printing press, and were preceded by 50 years of increasing overwhelm as Europe’s book collection grew from approximately 30,000 to over 20 million.  (And no doubt, even as knowledge and the arts grew so rapidly, there were members of the population who had little interest in learning to read, and would have criticized time wasted reading that could have been put to better use, like tilling the fields or baking bread.)

So here we are again, with a proliferation of technology and the demonization, confusion, and yes, real problems that come with it.  Two years ago the average amount of time adults in the U.S. spent online was 13 hours excluding email, and with the advent of the iPad it has undoubtedly increased from there.  Fortunately, people are starting to talk about ways to reflect on the way we use technology, such as Howard Rheingold in his new book, Net Smart.  Which is important, because we’ve passed the point where using technology is optional, at least if you want to live and work in the U.S.  So here are a few tips I thought I’d pass on that I and people I work with have found helpful in learning to how to manage your time and tech use:

 

  1. First, figure out what thing is the most time suck for you, because it varies.  For some people it is going on Facebook, for others it’s gaming.  Personally, I don’t think I spend more than 30 minutes a week on Facebook, because it isn’t my “thing.”  On the other hand, I need to do something about the 2,500 unread emails in my box.
  2. Next, drill down into that technology and figure out what particular elements are taking up the most time.  Saying “I spend hours on Facebook or Google+” is pretty meaningless, because these platforms have such varied functionality.  Are you on FB chatting?  Reading updates? Playing Farmville?  Take a few minutes to reflect on what you do and how much time it tends to consume.
  3. Consider Chunking.  Remember how I said my email was my biggest time suck?  When I really feel overwhelmed, I begin setting aside a couple of 30 minute blocks to read carefully and respond thoughtfully to emails.
  4. If you’re a therapist, I suggest you take a lesson from your voicemail, and begin using an auto-responder.  They are pretty universally available through either your webmail settings or your software.  I do think we have a responsibility to our patients to let them know that their message has been received, and told that if this is an emergency they should not wait for a reply, but go to the ER or call 911.
  5. Peter Bregman, a blogger for the Harvard Business Review, makes the excellent suggestion of having two lists for your day.  The first one lists the things you need to pay attention to that day.  The second one is lists the things you need NOT to pay attention to.  Many of us have a really hard time making priorities.  We think that everything needs to be attended to, and sure, if you put something on the NOT list, you will miss out on something.  It doesn’t feel good or easy to set priorities, because that is the nature of prioritizing.
  6. To the above lists, I suggest that you apply my own (non-patented) Postit Rule.  Quite simply, the Postit Rule is that any list needs to fit legibly on a regular sized Postit, or be shortened.  If I cannot print the items on my list legibly on one side of a postit, then more things need to go on the “NOT attending to” list.  Experience has proven that if I don’t do this I won’t get everything done anyway, because even though “dither and complain about how busy I am” never shows up on either list, it somehow seems to consume a lot of time.
  7. For gamers who are having a hard time logging off, I suggest a PostIt that is taped up to the edge of your monitor saying something like “Just win?  Maybe now’s a good time to log off.”
  8. For gamers who are interested in doing some self-reflection, I suggest you do this experiment:  Keep a pad and pen near the place you’re playing.  Tell yourself (and others if you’re grouped) that you are going to log off the next fail, not as a rage quit, but as an exercise.  Then, when you lose, log off and spend 10-15 minutes writing down the thoughts, feelings, and impressions that come up immediately after a fail.  Does it feel infuriating to lose?  Urgent? Funny? A relief?  What thoughts do you catch running through your mind?  After you’ve reflected a minute, put it away, but take it out and reread it an hour later and a day later.  What do you think of it now?
    You may have noticed that the above strategies don’t depend for the most part on advanced technology, but rather putting tangible reminders in your field of vision during the day.
    That said, there are several apps and sites that may help you get a handle on your time as well:
  1. If you surf a lot, consider using a news aggregator.  One Howard Rheingold recommends is NetVibes, which is very customizeable.  I find it a little too overwhelming, and I surf mostly on my iPad rather than a desktop, so I use  the App Flipboard.  It has a nice intuitive interface and allows me to read and share material very easily from within it.  Or you can try Google’s Feedburner or FeedDemon.
  2. If you haven’t tried Evernote yet, especially on the latest iPhone, you are missing out on another good time-saver for non-confidential sorts of info.  Evernote stores your notes, lists, pictures, and webpages so you can access them on any computer.  It makes what you save searchable, and best of all IMHO in the latest iPhone you can dictate notes.  If you’re a student or work with students, I recommend StudyBlue as well.

These are just some of the things out there that can help you achieve more mindfulness and organization.  Because in my opinion the hours counting and addiction labeling is dodging the real issue, how to increase our own mental abilities to become self-reflective and intentional in our use of technology.  Notice what you are attending to, increase the space between thinking and doing, and I’ll bet you find yourself a better gamer, blogger, worker, student, or other user of technology.

 

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Harriet At Forty-Eight

If you never read the novel Harriet the Spy, I hope you will ASAP.    My hope is that most children, parents and therapists have had a chance to read it already, because it has a lot to teach us about digital citizenship.  You can get it on Amazon here.

Harriet spends a lot of time writing down things in her notebook.  Truthful things.  Unflattering things.  And one day the notebook falls into the hands of her classmates, who read these things, and respond to her with anger.  What I find interesting is the way Harriet’s friends, teachers, and parents respond.  Their initial response is to take, or try to take, Harriet’s notebook.  Of course Harriet gets another one.  That’s not the problem.

Harriet the Spy was published in 1964.  According to Wikipedia, at least one variation of the technology of the notebook had been around since 1888, and there are examples of its common usage in the early 1900s.  This technology was prevalent long before the 1960s.  No one says to Harriet that she has a “notebook addiction,” although her usage of it becomes problematic.  In fact, her redemption in the book also comes from the same technology of the written word.

One of my favorite moments in Harriet the Spy comes in Chapter 14, when Harriet has her initial appointment with a psychiatrist.  As they settle down to play a game, the psychiatrist takes out his analytic pad:

Harriet stared at the notebook.  “What’s that?”

“A notebook.”

“I KNOW that,” she shouted.

I just take a few notes now and then.  You don’t mind, do you?”

“Depends on what they are.”

“What do you mean?”

“Are they mean, nasty notes, or just ordinary notes?”

“Why?”

“Well, I just thought I’d warn you.  Nasty ones are pretty hard to get by these days.”

“Oh I see what you mean.  Thank you for the advice.  No, they’re quite ordinary notes.”

“Nobody ever takes it away from you, I bet, do they?”

 

This vignette illustrates how the clinician is not above or apart from technology.  Harriet’s psychiatrist uses it himself.  And his response to her struggle and worry about using technology is an approach I’ve come to see as key:  He doesn’t try to restrict her from using the technology, he engages her around its use and thinking about its use.  He actually gives her a notebook, and then respects her usage of it when he lets her leave the office without taking it back or asking to see it.

He then recommends that her parents talk to the school about allowing her to use technology to amplify her thoughts and expression there, via the school newspaper.  He also suggests that they use technology in the form of a letter written by Harriet’s old nanny to give her some advice and connection.  Many will say that Ole Golly’s letter is the pivot point for Harriet in the story, but I’d suggest that the pivotal moment comes when the mental health practitioner doesn’t demonize technology (the notebook) or pathologize its usage, but rather leans on technology as an avenue into the patient’s forward edge transference.

Technology, as Howard Rheingold reminds us, is a mind amplifier.  It can be used to amplify our memory in the form of notes, for example.  It can also be a voice amplifier, for better or for worse.

If Harriet was around today, I imagine she would be on LiveJournal, perhaps with her settings on private, but on LiveJournal nevertheless.  In fact, her LiveJournal notebook would probably be more secure than a notebook carried around on her person without encryption.  But maybe she’d also be on Facebook, Twitter, and Tumblr.  And unless she had parents or teachers who talked to her about digital literacy, she might not know or care about privacy settings or mindful use of technology.

Every day, on Facebook or Twitter or other social media, people young and old post, and “drop their notebook” to be read by hundreds or thousands of people, who can amplify the notebook even further by liking, pasting, sharing or tweeting it.  By comparison, Harriet’s class of 10-15 students seems paltry.  When an adolescent complains about her ADHD medication on her status, or when a parent tweets how proud he is of his Asperger’s child, these nuggets of information, of expression, of identity formation are sent out into the world and amplified.  Our work as therapists needs to be to help our patients understand the significance of what they are about to do to themselves and others when that happens.  And to do that we need to understand the technology ourselves.

Few of us would consider giving Harriet a notebook as “feeding her addiction,” or giving her a hair of the dog that bit her.  Yet, we level such technophobic claims on the social media and technology of our time, trying to focus on technology as an addictive substance rather than as a tool, and pathologizing its use far too quickly and easily.  And we often join technophobia with adultism, when we try to intrude or control the use of technology by children and adolescents (note that I said “often,” not “always”)

When you look at some of the stories Harriet prints in the school newspaper, you have to marvel at the bravery of the educators in that school!  How many of school administrators would allow entries like “JACK PETERS (LAURA PETER’S FATHER) WAS STONED OUT OF HIS MIND AT THE PETERS’ PARTY LAST SATURDAY NIGHT.  MILLY ANDREWS (CARRIE ANDREWS’ MOTHER) JUST SMILED AT HIM LIKE AN IDIOT.”  Can you imagine the parental phone calls, even though the parents were both the behavioral and quoted source for this story?  Can you imagine kids being allowed to experience communication and learning with this minimal form of adult curation?  But also, can you imagine parents saying that the problem is allowing access to the technology of writing a newspaper, and that the idea of a school paper should be abolished?

When you think about it, we live in an amazing era of the amplification of human thought and expression.  Our children will need to learn how to manage that amplification in a way we still struggle to understand ourselves.  I remember one notebook I dropped, when I was managing a staff of guidance counselors.  I was very frustrated with the response of one of them to something, and wanted to share that with my supervisor.  I thought it would be important to share my emotional response to this with someone I understood to have the role of helping me sort this stuff out, and I was being impulsive and cranky.  I ended up sending the email to the staff instead.  Boy, did that torpedo those relationships.  But I did learn a lot about how to pay more attention to the power of technology, and that part of being a good digital citizen requires thoughtful use of ampliying your words and ideas!

Most of us probably have a notebook-we-dropped story we’d rather forget, but we need to remember them and share those stories with the up and coming generations as cautionary tales, and examples of good and poor digital citizenship.  Ole Golly tells us, “Remember that writing is to put love in the world, not to use against your friends.”  Writing, a technology we have come to understand a bit better since Gutenberg, can be used for good or ill; but we don’t ban it.  Now we are all learning, albeit uncomfortably at times, how to handle the newer technologies of social media, digital communication, and video games.  It may be a bit utopian to suggest that texting/tweeting/gaming/Facebook/blogging is to put love in the world.  But the alternative seems to be that while some of us ignore, avoid or fear it, other people, governments and corporations will learn how to use it against our friends.

Embedded in Harriet the Spy is a quote from Lewis Carroll, which aptly describes where we find ourselves in the 21st century of social media: “‘The time has come,’ the Walrus said,/’To talk of many things:”  Indeed, the chatter can be deafening, impulsive, hurtful and confusing.  But the solution is to choose our words carefully, not to stop talking altogether.

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