The Internet & Real Relationships

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Today I was slicing some lemons for shish kabobs and so not surprisingly I began to think about social media, attachment and what constitutes an authentic relationship.

Authenticity was a key term when I was becoming a therapist in the mid nineties, and society in general.  Today, most people I have spoken to in the mental health profession would say our happiness in part depends on having authentic relationships with others.  Setting aside for a moment that we often talk about “authenticity” as if there is one monolithic thing that “everyone knows” it is, this belief in the connection between authentic relationships and happiness often gives psychotherapists, social workers and educators their moral imperative to discourage use of technology.  That’s where the lemons come in.

Ten years ago, I met my friend Jackie Dotson on the bulletin boards of Psychology Today.  These bulletin boards were designed for clinicians to have an online forum where they could discuss a range of issues, make referrals, and share ideas.  They were also a place where early-adopting clinicians stumbled and experimented, behaved badly, gossiped and misspoke, as we tried to make sense of emerging technologies.  I remember heated online conversations about whether the forums were private and “safe,” where people were startled to consider that anyone could cut and paste your confidential posts anywhere on the web.  People were emboldened or perhaps I should say “emoboldened” by the relative anonymity on the forum to say things that could be breathtaking in both their vulnerability and/or sadism.  It was the Wild West of mental health on the web.

My interactions with Jackie were few and far between when she and I were both active there.  It wasn’t until I moved on from the forums to spending more time on Facebook that I think we really began socializing more.  Perhaps it was because FB allowed for a flow of text and images, more seamless interaction, and chat.  Whatever the reason, over the past few years my life has intersected with Jackie more and more.  We have several mutual acquaintances from the PT forums, and a mutual friend with whom I went to college with.  I’m glad I friended her.

From 3,000 miles away, Jackie has crept into my online and emotional life with the secret code of affinity that could only be shared via social media.  We share a love of bone marrow as evidenced by our food pics, and she has forced me to rethink my stance in social media workshops I do where I used to announce to my audience, “Nobody wants to see your food.”  Our dark wit and banter is present more days than not in my FB feeds, I’ve even taken more of an interest in my local sports teams so I can insult hers.  In return she pretends to be a bigot on LGBT issues to bait me.  Although I’ve never told her explicitly, she has reassured me when I worried about how my picture looks online, and comforted me when my city suffered a terrorist attack.

And then last year she started sending me lemons.  Real lemons.

Jackie lives in CA, and has at least one prolific lemon tree.  Last year she offered to mail a box of them to anyone of her friends on Facebook for the price of shipping.  I jumped at the chance.  They arrived within days and were enjoyed by my family immensely.  So immensely, that when Jackie began posting pictures of budding trees this year, I grew quite impatient for them.  They arrived two weeks ago, and for the past two Sundays I have used them for cooking.  As I write this, there are chicken kabobs marinating in lemon and thyme for tonight.

Jackie and I have never sat down together for a heart to heart or face to face conversation, but we carry our connection to each other throughout our day with our smartphones.  In the decade that we have been in each others’ orbits, I suspect we have each known deep sadnesses that we haven’t spoken of to each other.  Yet I am convinced that if I ever chose to reach out to her that way it would be okay and vice verse.  Not all intimacy needs to be acted on.

That said, for two Sundays, as I have chopped and squeezed fresh lemons, I have thought of Jackie and smiled.  I have imagined her and our conversations as I move through my kitchen, while my brain alters levels of different neurochemicals and changes my affective state in ways that are real and comforting to me.

The stubborn adherence to imagining that technological use inherently diminishes our authenticity has been eroding the mental health field’s relationship with the people we work with for decades now.  Friends and colleagues of mine in the tech industry are consistently amazed that I still need to educate and advocate with my peers about this.  Our profession continues to act as if relationship mediated by emerging technologies is one step removed from other relationships, less authentic because we use our bodies in different ways to achieve connection with each other.  I wonder if our dogs feel that we are less authentic because we have replaced smelling butts with eye contact and uttering sounds all the time?

I jest, in part because I doubt our companion animals feels as fearful of becoming irrelevant as many of my colleagues do.  I think this fear is only justified to the extent that we are dogmatic about what constitute authenticity for everyone.  Pierre Teilhard de Chardin once said:

Love is the only force which can make things one without destroying them. … Some day, after mastering the winds, the waves, the tides and gravity, we shall harness.. the energies of love, and then, for the second time in the history of the world, man will have discovered fire.

I do not think it is the role of the therapist to be the arbiter of truth in what makes intimacy or authentic relationships.  Our role is to help our patients explore their capacity and harness their energies for love in ways that may go beyond the imagination our own experience affords us.  It is not for us to give them fire as gods would, but to help them make themselves whole without destroying them.

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Bringing Emerging Technology into the Clinical Process: Implications for Engagement and Treatment

If you have ever wondered how to begin attending to, listening for, and asking questions about a patient’s use of technology, this video might give you some ideas.  In it my colleague Lesa Fichte, LMSW, University at Buffalo School of Social Work, and I, discuss the role of technology, people’s relationship with technology, and how to integrate it into the treatment process by listening, inquiring, and learning.

 

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Selfie Esteem

Nancy J. Smyth, PhD, Dean & Professor, University at Buffalo

Nancy J. Smyth, PhD, Dean & Professor, University at Buffalo

 

“Photographs do not explain, they acknowledge.” –Susan Sontag

Last month, the Oxford Dictionary made the word “selfie” not only an official word, but their word of the year for 2013.  Defining selfie as “a photograph that one has taken of oneself, typically one taken with a smartphone or webcam and uploaded to a social media website” the OD made explicit what has implicitly grown to be the norm of our world; a world of smartphones, self pics and social media.

Many psychotherapists and social workers have and will continue to decry this as another sign the the “narcissism” of our age.  Selfies have become synonymous with the millenials, the dumbing down of the populace by the internet, and sometimes even stretching to how Google is making us stupid.  My chosen profession has historically played fast and loose with calling people and cultures narcissistic.  Karen Horney coined the term “the neurotic personality of our time” in the 1930s, initially in part as a critique to the Freudian critique of Victorian modesty.  Kohut’s groundbreaking work on “tragic man,” and the healthy strands of narcissism in human life was co-opted within years by Lasch (1979) to describe the then-current “culture of narcissism.”  In short, even though narcissism has been a part of human being at least since Narcissus gazed into the water in Greco-Roman times, we continue to see it as perennially on the uprise.

 

Joanna Pappas, Epic MSW Student

Joanna Pappas, Epic MSW Student

 

This dovetails with each generation’s lament that the subsequent one has become more self-absorbed.  And yet, as Sontag points out, by making photography everyday, “everybody is a celebrity.”  Yep, that’s what we hate about the millennials, right?  They think everything is an accomplishment, their every act destined for greatness.  But as Sontag goes on to say, making everybody a celebrity is also making another interesting affirmation: “no person is more interesting than any other person.”

 

Jonathan Singer, Assistant Professor, Temple University

Jonathan Singer, Assistant Professor, Temple University

 

Why do many of us (therapists in particular) have a problem then with selfies?  Why do we see them as a “symptom” of the narcissism of the age?  Our job is to find the interesting in anyone, after all. We understand boredom as a countertransference response in many cases, our attempt to defend against some projection of the patient’s.  So why the hating on selfies?

I think Lewis Aron hits on the answer, or at least part of it, in his paper “The Patient’s Experience of the Analyst’s Subjectivity.”  In it he states the following:

 

I believe that people who are drawn to analysis as a profession have particularly strong conflicts regarding their desire to be known by another; that is, they have conflicts concerning intimacy.  In more traditional terms, these are narcissistic conflicts over voyeurism and exhibitionism.  Why else would anyone choose a profession in which one spends one’s life listening and looking into the lives of others while one remains relatively silent and hidden?

(Aron, A Meeting of Minds, 1996, p. 88)

 

In other words, I believe that many of my colleagues have such disdain for selfies because they secretly yearn to take and post them.  If you shuddered with revulsion just now, check yourself.  I certainly resemble that remark at times:  I struggled long with whether to post my own selfie here.  What might my analytically-minded colleagues think?  My patients, students, supervisees?  I concluded that the answers will vary, but in general the truth that I’m a human being is already out there.

 

Mike Langlois, PvZ Afficianado

Mike Langlois, PvZ Afficianado

 

Therapists like to give themselves airs, including an air of privacy in many instances.  We get hung up on issues of self-disclosure, when what the patient is often really looking for is a revelation that we have a subjectivity rather than disclosure of personal facts.  And as Aron points out, our patients often pick up on our feelings of resistance or discomfort, and tow the line.  One big problem with this though is that we don’t know what they aren’t telling us about because they didn’t tell us.  In the 60s and 70s there were very few LGBT issues voiced in therapy, and the naive conclusion was that this was because LGBT people and experiences were a minority, in society in general and one’s practice in specific.  Of course, nobody was asking patient’s if they were LGBT, and by not asking communicating their discomfort.

What has this got to do with selfies?  Well for one thing, I think that therapists are often similarly dismissive of technology, and convey this by not asking about it in general.  Over and over I hear the same thing when I present on video games–“none of my patients talk about them.”  When I suggest that they begin asking about them, many therapists have come back to me describing something akin to a dam bursting in the conversation of therapy.  But since we can’t prove a null hypothesis, let me offer another approach to selfies.

All photographs, selfie or otherwise, do not explain anything.  For example:

 

looting

 

People who take a selfie are not explaining themselves, they are acknowledging that they are worth being visible.  Unless you have never experienced any form of oppression this should be self-evident, but in case you grew up absolutely mirrored by a world who thought you were the right size, shape, color, gender, orientation and class I’ll explain:  Many of our patients have at least a sneaking suspicion that they are not people.  They look around the world and see others with the power and prestige and they compare that to the sense of emptiness and invisibility they feel.  Other people can go to parties, get married, work in the sciences, have children, buy houses, etc.  But they don’t see people like themselves prevailing in these areas.  As far as they knew, they were the only biracial kid in elementary school, adoptee in middle school, bisexual in high school, trans person in college, rape survivor at their workplace.

So if they feel that they’re worth a selfie, I join with them in celebrating themselves.

As their therapist I’d even have some questions:

  • What were you thinking and feeling that day you took this?
  • What do you hope this says about you?
  • What do you hope this hides about you?
  • Who have you shared this with?
  • What was their response?
  • What might this selfie tell us about who you are?
  • What might this selfie tell us about who you wish to be?
  • Where does that spark of belief that you are worth seeing reside?

In addition to exploring, patients may find it a useful intervention to keep links to certain selfies which evoke certain self-concept and affect states.  That way, if they need a shift in perspective or affect regulation they can access immediately a powerful visual reminder which says “This is possible for you.”

Human beings choose to represent themselves in a variety of ways, consciously and unconsciously.  They can be whimsical, professional, casual, friendly, provocative, erotic, aggressive, acerbic, delightful.  Are they projections of our idealized self?  Absolutely.  Are they revelatory of our actual self? Probably.  They explain nothing, acknowledge the person who takes them, and celebrate a great deal.  If there is a way you can communicate a willingness see your patient’s selfies you might be surprised at what opens up in the therapy for you both.

 

Melanie Sage, Assistant Professor, University of North Dakota

Melanie Sage, Assistant Professor, University of North Dakota

 

In other posts I have written about Huizinga’s concept of play.  Rather than as seeing selfies as the latest sign that we are going to hell in a narcissistic handbasket, what if we looked at the selfie as a form of play? Selfies invite us in to the play element in the other’s life, they are not “real” life but free and unbounded.  They allow each of us to transcend the ordinary for a moment in time, to celebrate the self, and share with a larger community as a form of infinite game.

It may beyond any of us to live up to the ideal that no one is less interesting than anyone else in our everyday, but seen in this light the selfie is a renunciation of the cynicism I sometimes see by the mental health professionals I meet.  We sometimes seem to privilege despair as somehow more meaningful and true than joy and celebration, but aren’t both essential parts of the human condition?  So if you are a psychotherapist or psychoeducator, heed my words:  The Depth Police aren’t going to come and take your license away, so go out and snap a selfie while everyone is looking.

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

OnyxiaBreath.12.8.06

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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Skyrim Family Values

hearthfire-adoption

In psychotherapy we have grown to have a narrow definition of what it means to prescribe something.  Most of us think of prescription in terms of medication, however if we take this definition, you’ll see why I often prescribe video games:

pre·scribe

/priˈskrīb/
Verb
  1. (of a medical practitioner) Advise and authorize the use of (a medicine or treatment) for someone, esp. in writing.
  2. Recommend (a substance or action) as something beneficial.

(Google, Transmitted from http://bit.ly/XyztcE, 2013)

I have mentioned before my assertion that video games are among other things models of the world, that must both resemble and be distinct from the world to be effective.  Sometimes they are models that present dystopian worlds, and other times they model how things could be if we set aside some of our differences.

The game The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim is such a game, and one I recommend that therapists who work with a diverse range of families familiarize themselves with.  Like other prescriptions it does have some effects that need to be considered carefully before recommending it to patients.  It is rated M by the ERSB, which is characterized as  “MATURE: Content is generally suitable for ages 17 and up. May contain intense violence, blood and gore, sexual content and/or strong language.”  For parents who are very concerned with violence in video games, this one has a range of it:  Set in a quasi-Nordic society, it contains the brutality one would expect there, including a decapitation in the first 10 minutes of the game’s opening.

So what on earth am I thinking in recommending it?

Last week the U.S. and the Supreme Court engaged in public deliberation on Proposition 8 in CA, the repeal of DOMA, and the question of what makes a marriage, and by extension, a family.  As the debate unfolded, the statistics reported indicated that the court of public opinion had already reached a majority about the subject.  The Washington Post reported that 58% of Americans favored gay marriage, the highest percentage of our citizens yet.  And in the Supreme Court, Justice Kennedy raised this:

He was alluding to children of parents in same-sex relationships, some of whom are biological offspring, but a substantial number of others who are adopted.  Adopted children often experience marginalization by virtue of their adoptive status, which can in itself be stigmatizing in a world which often give genetics primacy over nurturance.  But the child who is adopted by same-sex parents often faces a double whammy in a world where their family system goes unrecognized if not persecuted.

I’d like to think that at least part of the change in public opinion on gay marriage and families is due to Skyrim.  The video game from its inception has allowed for quest lines that culminate in your proposal, wedding, and marriage to a partner who can either be the same or different sex.  If your character is female and you ask another female character to get married, your experience is one of acceptance.  Later you get married in a ceremony celebrated and witnessed by several people in your community.  Still later you set up house together, and have the experience so many of us have craved, coming home to someone who loves you after a hard days work (or dragon-slaying as the case may be.)  As of last July, 10 million copies of the game had been sold worldwide, so it is not unreasonable to imagine that a large number of these found their way into the homes and minds of U.S. gamers.  So let’s not give Will and Grace all the credit.

When working with patients from adoptive and/or same-sex families, Skyrim can be a valuable resource in providing a model of a world where adoption and gay marriage are accepted and treated with little fanfare as part of life.  Families can use the game as a launch pad for discussion about what makes a family.  Perhaps more importantly, kids, adolescents and adults can enjoy hours of gameplay in a world that celebrates marriage diversity and the family of adoption.  It’s by no means a perfect world, but the benefits of such a video game may outweigh the concerns about gore.  I can tell you that what I hear discussed eagerly by players is not how cool the gore is, but rather how neat it is to be able to be adopted or marry who you want.

Think about how often parents wish their children could understand them better.  Now  your child has the opportunity to imagine themselves choosing a child as they were chosen.  Imagine a LGBTQ adolescent being able to experience choosing to marry who they want regardless of sex.  And imagine a straight person seeing that they aren’t always what “normal” has to look like.  Not medication, but a powerful prescription for what often ails our patients, and our nation.

And then, as I was preparing to write this post, I was bitten by a vampire.

Another common occurrence in the world of Skyrim is encountering a vampire.  In my case, without choosing to, I had been bitten, and within a few days of game play, people in Skyrim began to notice.  At first the shopkeepers would tell me I looked pale.  A day or so later I was told by the guards that I had a hungry look in my eye.  Finally, when my vampirism was no longer concealable everyone turned hostile.  I couldn’t enter any city, including my hometown without being attacked, both verbally and physically.  No matter that I hadn’t hurt anyone yet, I was forced to sneak around everywhere.  I felt frustrated and victimized.  It was a powerful lesson in ostracism.

I wish I could assign Skyrim to every one of my social work students studying diversity and racism.  The game provides a model of a world which provides you with the experience of tremendous acceptance and empowerment, as well as hatred and stigma.  It also shows us models of love and families which we have yet to embrace sufficiently in the United States of America.

There are  38 children in Skyrim who could be parented by a same-sex couple, in CA there are some 40,000 who have been.  In our nation as a whole an estimated 65,000 adopted children are being raised by same-sex parents.  We risk raising a portion of these, our future population, to feel ashamed, marginalized and flawed.

We can do better.

 

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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:

 

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!

 

 

Angry Birds, Advent, & the 12 Links of Christmas

You may be familiar with Angry Birds, one of the most popular smartphone games in the world. But did you know that they have a holiday season edition? They cover several world holidays, but by far my favorite is the Christmas version, which comes out early each December.

The reason I like it so much is that it is basically an Advent calendar. For those of you who aren’t familiar with them, advent calendars are holiday calendars used to help celebrate the anticipation of Christmas. There are usually 24 little doors or windows in the calendar, and each night you open one of the doors as you get closer to the 25th. Behind the door may be a picture, small piece of chocolate, part of a story, or something else.

Angry Birds Seasons allows you to play one game level per day leading up until Christmas. Whether you whiz through it or play for 2 hours, the next day’s level is locked until midnight. You’ll see a countdown page if you try to move forward, but that’s it.

Many spiritual traditions emphasize the celebration of small patient acts. Hanukkah uses the nightly lighting of the menorah and exchange of small gifts for 8 nights. Diwali has 6 nights of celebration in its festival of lights, and there are many more. And now we have the more secular tradition of Angry Birds.

I want to celebrate with you the idea of waiting and enjoying small things. I think we can enjoy anticipation, see the value in the smallest of gifts. And that those gifts can be as powerful as they are small.

So whatever your particular holiday tradition is, or isn’t, I hope you’ll accept this gift from me to you. I call them the Twelve Links of Christmas, but you can call them whatever you want. They’re hyperlinks (sorry Zelda fans) to 12 different activities and ideas. Some of them are video games you can try, others are gift ideas, some are videos of change. All of them engage you in some activity involving social justice.

Don’t open them all at once! Each day from now until the 25th, click on one link and try it out.

The Twelve Links

1. Darfur is Dying: Refugee Game for Change Play this game to learn more about the genocide in the Darfur region. One of my students played the game for 45 minutes before realizing that she had now spent more time learning about Darfur in one sitting than the totality of her life before.
2. Eli Pariser TED Talk: Beware online “filter bubbles” In this TED Talk, Eli Pariser helps us see how we are in danger of having our experiences and information filtered by emerging technologies, and warns us of the potential consequence of such searches mediating and filtering our understanding of the world.
3. True Colors It’s been two years since this performance was belted out by the LA Gay Men’s Chorus, but it is as moving as ever. Sung to the world, but also to every LGBT youth feeling isolated and hopeless, this resounding cry of comfort and encouragement is perhaps best summed up in the powerful vocals at 3:50: “So don’t be afraid..”
4. Foldit: Science Game for Health Learn about and play the game that contributed to HIV research in 10 days of gaming in ways that computer models had been trying to do for years. Foldit uses a video game to fold proteins, which aids in the search for cures of health issues such as Cancer and AIDS. Within minutes, anyone can begin playing the game and help!
5. Tropes Vs. Women #3: The Smurfette Principal This is one video from Anita Sarkeesian’s series, which offers a feminist perspective on the limited and limiting ways women are portrayed in popular culture. Anita’s more recent exploration of sexism and these tropes in video games sparked a hateful backlash from some, and may just have ushered in a new era of discussion and self-critique as gamers and game developers supported Sarkeesian and have begun working to make the days of such hate numbered.
6. Papo and Yo If you still have any doubt that video games can be both art and social commentary, this powerful trailer may convince you otherwise. This PS3 game offers a powerful exploration of childhood abuse, ethnicity, poverty and the power of the imagination to solve the puzzle trauma inflicts on the oppressed.
7. Ken Robinson Says Schools Kill Creativity Check out this TED talk, not just for its commentary on education in general, but as a meditation on how we could rethink learning disabilities, autism, and other differences in the human learning process.
8. Ethos and Seniors Flash Mob for Elder Abuse Awareness Day This year, senior citizens in my very own Massachusetts dropped into the local supermarket for a flash mob to raise awareness on elder abuse. Their choice of song was apt, and even a bit chilling. Check out the video and see if you can notice how many stereotypes of elders it helps debunk.
9. Heifer.org : Rethinking Gift-giving A perennial favorite of mine, the mission of Heifer is simple: “To work with communities to end hunger and poverty and care for the Earth.” This website will show you the way you can change the world this holiday season by giving a gift of sustainable food and agriculture to indigenous peoples all over the world. Much nicer than another soap on a rope.
10. I Am: Trans People Speak A brave and bold use of social media, this project is affiliated with the Massachusetts Transgender Political Coalition in partnership with the Gay & Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation. It seeks to raise awareness about diversity within transgender communities, as well as empower individuals to create positive change in the media representations of trans people.
11. Food Force 2 Look, you’re on Facebook anyway, why not spend some time learning a bit about sustainability, community organizing and world hunger? This game, sponsored by the United Nations World Food Program, seeks to raise both awareness and money to solve real world food shortages. Since it is a video game on a social media platform, perhaps you can invite your friends to play too!
12. Give An Hour: Psychotherapists Supporting Veterans Got a spare 50 hours? Of course not. Okay, how about 10 minutes to check this video out. In it my colleague Barbara Van Dahlen discusses how she founded Give An Hour, an organization that connects returning veterans with psychotherapists who have volunteered to donate an hour a week of free therapy. After you listen to some of the soldier’s stories, you may find yourself inspired to make room for that hour a week in your practice. I have since 2006, and I recommend it highly.

If you’ve checked out the link before, maybe there is someone important to you you could send it to? Maybe you haven’t shared it with your child? Maybe someone else who you know will be alone for the holidays, or someone you’ve been meaning to reconnect with and can’t quite figure out how to do it?

I hope you find these links as rewarding and enriching as I have. Please accept them as my thank you for reading the blog this year. Please take them as an invitation to change the world. Because that is what social justice is, isn’t it?

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Social Justice & Technology

Every day technology makes life easier for millions of people, and in doing so makes life harder for others.

Adam Gopnik, in his New Yorker Article, “The Information: How the Internet Gets Inside Us,” breaks down the population into three groups:

call them the Never-Betters, the Better-Nevers, and the Ever-Wasers. The Never-Betters believe that we’re on the brink of a new utopia, where information will be free and democratic, news will be made from the bottom up, love will reign, and cookies will bake themselves. The Better-Nevers think that we would have been better off if the whole thing had never happened, that the world that is coming to an end is superior to the one that is taking its place, and that, at a minimum, books and magazines create private space for minds in ways that twenty-second bursts of information don’t. The Ever-Wasers insist that at any moment in modernity something like this is going on, and that a new way of organizing data and connecting users is always thrilling to some and chilling to others—that something like this is going on is exactly what makes it a modern moment.

Anyone who has read this blog or heard me speak would have me pegged as a Never-Better, and that is pretty close to the truth. I do think that we live in an era that rivals that of the printing press, with its subsequent explosion of literacy and education. In my lifetime I have already seen a startling collapse of time and space due to how the internet and other technologies have allowed us to traverse great geographical distances in seconds. From my home I can bank, buy, and sell. I provide therapy and consultation to people as close as my city and as far as Singapore with little to no noticeable difference. And when I want to relax I join colleagues and friends in a virtual world that has denizens from Australia, the UK, and Asia.

And yet, as much a Never-Better as I am, I have noticed how social justice continues to lag behind. Not in the technology, but in both the access to it and fit between human beings and the systems they are in. Technology, as always, has advanced beyond our ability to master it, think critically about it, and perhaps most importantly achieve equity with it.

Let me give you an example I have experienced fairly recently in how the technology that benefits me has put others in my own social sphere at a disadvantage. I have an iPhone App, courtesy of a nameless coffee vendor, that has allowed me to use my iPhone to pay for my daily coffee with the flash of a barcode. My local barista rings me up, scans my iPhone, and the transaction is finished. At first, as an early adopter, I was one of the few folks using this in the Cambridge area, but more and more people are taking advantage of this App, and it is now commonplace in Austin, TX and Silicon Valley.

The problem with this App is that is financially disadvantages the baristas. There is no functionality as of yet in the App to allow for adding a gratuity, and since technology has worked all too well in eliminating the need for paper currency, I rarely carry any money with me to add a gratuity. When I initially became aware of this, the temptation was to slink away from the register as quickly as possible, and if I didn’t have ongoing relationships with the baristas I might easily have done so. But instead I asked them if they had noticed a drop in gratuities since the App became prevalent, and they remarked that they had. So what has been a convenience for me has significantly reduced the regular income of others.

This may seem a privileged example, and a minor one, but that is in fact one reason that I am mentioning it. Every day, through these minute transactions, we are influencing the lives of others, often without thought. The trope of the machine replacing the worker is in fact an industrial one: Each day, a section of our population does basically the same work they did a decade ago, but technology has made it easier to overlook and underpay them. And for that to change, we need to notice the behavior, and then, I suggest, address the technology.

There is a shortfall between lived experience, social justice and technology occurring on a microscopic level in the US, and part of why we all need to become more digitally literate is so that we can advocate on behalf of under-served and marginalized populations for technology to improve their lives. Avoiding technology is not the answer. Slinking away from the register is not the answer. The answer, in part, is to contact the company in question and suggest adding features to the technology to bridge the gap. In this case, I’m contacting the nameless coffee company suggesting they add a feature in either the App-user interface or the register-barista interface to allow for the inclusion of a gratuity. Seems like a simple fix, but as someone who owns and works in a company that creates customizable features I can tell you that they are expensive, and therefore often not made until somebody requests them.

In terms of world equity and technology we have an even greater challenge, namely, access. More than 81% of people in the US have some form of broadband internet access, as compared to approximately 5% of the African continent. 1 out of 3 people in the US have internet speeds 10 Mbs, as opposed to 0 in Ghana, Venezuela, and Mongolia.

Recently I had the opportunity to participate in a game developed by Jane MacGonigal at SXSW, which she claims will have have boosted my resiliency and hence extended my life by 7-8 minutes after playing it just once. I believe her. Which makes me think it is all the more important that we find ways not only to create games where people in the developed world learn about developing countries; but help people in developing countries access and develop their own video games. With all of the great work being done in the US and Europe on socially serious games, and games for health, we are seeing how video games can increase resilience and learning skills. How can we use these technologies to bring about similar changes in less affluent countries and populations? Because if playing a video game could help us crack the eznymatic code of HIV, which 1.2 million people in the US live with, what about playing a video game to increase resilience in Subsaharan Africa, where 22.9 million people live with it?

I think it is also imperative that people in developing countries have access not only to playing video games, but creating them. If they don’t, then the same cultural colonialization that has happened in the past will repeat itself. We need to support social justice in such geeky and subtle ways as making sure that indigenous cultures all over the planet have the opportunity to design games that reflect their own cultures, not a globalized McVersion of it.

Between the whittling away of a worker’s salary in the US and Subsaharan HIV are a myriad other social justice concerns, but digital literacy and emerging technologies are the threads that bind them all together. The same internet that allowed LGBT people to find each other in a hostile 20th century can be used to out them against their will today. The same social media that allows a more participatory experience can give people new avenues and amplifications when they want to harass people. The problem is not technology, but our lack of digital literacy. And by “our” I mean the individual you and me. Because corporations and governments are making it their business to learn how to master technology and its power even while we debate whether it was Better-Never or Never-Better.

I’ve often said on this blog that if you want to run a private psychotherapy practice in the 21st century you cannot ignore technology. Now I’m upping the ante, and saying that if you want to be a socially just human being you cannot ignore it. We need to learn how emerging technologies work and how they don’t. We need to identify the slippages between human systems and the technologies that convenience some at the expense of others. We need to see the internet as an infrastructure necessary to make the developing world as viable as the developed. And we need to understand how digital literacy can empower us before someone takes that power away.

Like this post? There’s more where that came from, for only $2.99 you can buy my book. I can rant in person too, check out the Press Kit for Public Speaking info.