Can Technology Improve Mental Health?

The field of psychology spent most of the twentieth century focused on the ills of humankind, examining issues such as depression, anxiety, and schizophrenia. Psychologists were trained to look for illness and pathology and to find ways to treat them. Psychologists were “problem-focused,” looking at strategies to fix and repair, rather than to build and fulfill. Psychologists are now asking can technology improve mental health and enhance positive psychology skills.

The change of focus from pathology to human growth in psychology occurred during the 1990’s and continues today that might best be identified by the term “positive psychology.” Instead of putting all of our energies into fixing mental illness and other psychological troubles after the fact, we have begun to look towards the promotion of positive skills that promote individual and societal growth. The concept is that by teaching the skills of positive psychology, particularly to children, we can provide individuals with the skills to deal with the inevitable stressors and change with which all humans are faced. More importantly, we can help them to construct lives in which they experience positive subjective experiences such as well-being, satisfaction, joy, sensual pleasures, and happiness.

Positive psychology has many characteristics. A global definition from Christopher Peterson, Ph.D. describes “positive psychology” as the scientific study of what makes life most worth living. Martin Seligman, often referred to as the founder of the positive psychology movement in America, defines it as the study of happiness, flourishing, and what makes life worth living. Seligman identifies five factors as leading to well-being:  positive emotion, engagement, relationships, meaning and purpose, and accomplishment.

Twenty-first century psychologists have begun to ask whether screen-based technologies can enhance positive psychology skills.  They have have identified a group of skills that help individuals achieve a sense of well-being and psychological health:  resilience, gratitude, purpose, cognitive reframing, connectedness, self-assessment, and control. Psychologists are also considering how games and media can enhance skills such as grit, positive mindsets, zest, flow, empathy, forgiveness, authenticity, altruism, kindness, and spirituality. Our team at Learningworks for Kids and other forward thinking organizations such as iThrive Games,  Ripple Effects, The Center for Games and Impact, and Games for Change are examining how video games and other digital media can best be used to promote these skills in children.

The mechanisms within games that promote positive psychology skills vary. Video games are natural tools for teaching because they are so engaging and capture the attention and motivation of the player. Many video games practice the use of positive psychology skills in order to succeed in the game. Games suited to developing positive psychology skills may promote interactions with other game players, enable teaching and mentoring, require creative solutions, and facilitate feelings of empathy. While some games show promise in developing these skills solely via game play, most current games and screen-based technologies might best be thought of as “teaching tools” in which metacognition and discussion facilitate learning.

We have selected a limited set of skills to discuss in our ongoing series about how video games and other digital media can promote positive psychology skills. As with the LearningWorks for Kids approach to using video games to improve executive functions, we suggest the “detect, reflect, connect” process to transform game-based learning of positive psychology skills into real-world skills. The detect step helps players identify the skill they are using and recognize it within game play. This leads to the reflect step, where a metacognitive process of thinking about how the skill helps in game play and how it might be applied in the real world takes place. The final step, connect, includes opportunities and activities designed to apply the skill directly to real-world problems. To learn more about this process and to explore other ways to make game-based learning into real-world skills check out our videos and website.

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