The Child Mind BlogBrainstorm

  • Whither the Digital Generation?
    March 5, 2012 Harry Kimball

    Last week Gawker pointed us to a Pew study with a reliably snarky headline, "The Internet Either Is or Is Not Ruining Teens' Brains, Say Experts." The thing is, that's an accurate statement, to a point. The more than a thousand technologists, futurists, academics, and critics queried are fairly reliably split about whether they agree with one of two statements, which begin:

    In 2020 the brains of multitasking teens and young adults are "wired" differently from those over age 35 and overall it yields helpful results.

    Or:

    In 2020, the brains of multitasking teens and young adults are "wired" differently from those over age 35 and overall it yields baleful results.

    Baleful! Yeesh. About 55% of respondents agreed with the more optimistic statement, which prophesies no "notable cognitive shortcomings" associated with a greater facility at multitasking and online information gathering, and "changes in learning and cognition among the young" that produce generally "positive outcomes."

    Another 42% weren't so bullish on the future, and agreed instead with the second statement. In 2020, it continues, young people "do not retain information; they spend most of their energy sharing short social messages, being entertained, and being distracted away from deep engagement with people and knowledge."

    But the survey wasn't really about these two extremes. Those questions were a "tension pair" that was "designed to provoke detailed elaborations," the authors note in polling jargon, and that is exactly what they did, eliciting much less black-and-white ruminations from the experts. The most insightful suggest that the advance of technology is inevitable but the effects are not, and that the real measure of the future is how we educate our children about new media.

    "The question we face as individuals, organizations, educators and perhaps especially as parents," writes Alexandra Samuel of the Social + Media Centre, "is how we can help today's kids to prepare for that world—the world they will actually live in and help to create—instead of the world we are already nostalgic for." We just have trouble accepting the future and leaving the past behind. "The tendency to moralize and fret over new media seems to be wired into us," notes Christopher J. Ferguson of Texas A&M. But the new media landscape is where our children will live, and to make the most of it they will need tools to thrive there.

    The term of art for this sort of education is "internet literacy," and it seems more critically important every day as computers and mobile devices become ubiquitous, everywhere from the bedroom to the classroom. We've seen how easy it is for technology to be bent to malicious or simply unhelpful ends, but turning Luddite is not a valid solution for most people. These changes in the media landscape will change how our children learn and interactbut it's up to parents and educators working with young people to ensure that the change is one for the better.

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  • Harvard Goes Gaga Against Bullying
    March 1, 2012 Caroline Miller

    Lady Gaga toned down her act a bit (but not too much, happily) to go to Harvard yesterday to launch an anti-bullying campaign named after her acceptance anthem "Born This Way." While Gaga has been vocal about supporting more stringent anti-bullying laws, her foundation will be aimed at encouraging kids themselves to be kinder and empowering them to "challenge meanness and cruelty."

    Anti-Bullying GagaIn an interview with Nick Kristof of the New York Times she called it a bottom-up movement to make it cooler for young people to be nice, rather than a top-down crackdown on bullying.

    And she talked about her own experiences as a target of bullies: "There was a certain point in my high school years when I just couldn't even focus on class because I was so embarrassed all the time," she told Kristof. "I was so ashamed of who I was."

    Her foundation aims to see that kids have a "safe place" to develop their individuality—which she wisely sees as depending on promoting tolerance among their peers and encouraging them to stand up for kids who are different.

    Adolescence is the time when we are most vulnerable to intimidation, when self-expression seems riskiest and rejection most painful. Coming to the defense of young people who are struggling to pass through that gauntlet is an apt mission for someone who has so brilliantly invented and reinvented herself.

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  • Putdown of 'Parenthood' Misses Autism Reality
    Feb. 29, 2012 Beth Arky

    While Parenthood's season finale had many intense, lovely and tissue-worthy moments—not to mention one very steamy scenethose who have been following the high-drama episodes featuring Max Braverman and his family were disappointed that the boy with Asperger's played a minimal role.

    But Max took center stage online after the web site Television Without Pity touted its "Parenthood: Rules for Being a Braverman" photo gallery on Facebook under the status update "Max has never heard the word 'no' in his life." TWoP is known for its snark factor and there's no debating Parenthood is ripe for some riffs.

    But snark turned offensive when TWoP asserted "You Cannot Discipline Max." The site, which didn't even mention Max's autism spectrum disorder, claimed, "The universe will not allow" the boys' parents to keep him from getting what he wants, "so a Braverman must be prepared for many trips to see dinosaur bones." The flip remark refers to a gripping episode that showed a rigid Max tantrum and then disappear, one of autism parents' greatest fears.

    Shannon Des Roches Rosa, who is co-editor of The Thinking Person's Guide to Autism and blogs at Squidalicious, pulled no punches when she weighed in on TPGA's Facebook page: "I expect the folks at TWoP to be snarky; I don't expect them to be jerks. Their recent piece on Parenthood is studded with Asperger's-delegitimizing gems."

    "I get that this is a snarky publication, however it doesn't make it right," adds Sharon da Vanport, exective director at Autism Women's Network, who has an ASD diagnosis, as does one of her children. "Timing is everything. I don't believe our community is quite ready for these kinds of giggles yet, because of the way Asperger's is marginalized and stigmatized in the media. TWoP FAILS."

    When one commenter defended TWoP, writing, "Are you kidding me? You must have confused these folks with the folks from Television With Pity," Emily Willingham, another co-editor of TPGA who blogs at Double X Science, responded, "Pity or its absence isn't the issue here."

    The issue is awareness and, with any luck, understanding. Children and teens with Asperger's and other "high-functioning" forms of autism have a hidden disability. Because they exhibit "quirky" or challenging behaviors without any clear physical manifestations, the world too often views them as unruly brats and their caregivers as bad parents. TWoP's rant is yet another reminder that most people just don't "get it." 

    Many parents of kids with ASD and adults on the spectrum have embraced the show, created by Jason Katims (Friday Night Lights), who has a son with Asperger's. They applaud him for portraying realistically a very complicated disorder and its effects on a child and his family, quite an accomplishment within the confines of a one-hour network series.

    While fans will have to wait till May to learn if NBC will renew Parenthood for a fourth season, they were encouraged to learn that the finale got the highest ratings since the "dinosaur" episode aired in November. They aren't ready to say goodbye to Max and family after what Entertainment Weekly editor-at-large Ken Tucker called "a rocky, uneven, but overall excellent Parenthood season"—especially when they've seen it can help family, friends and neighbors better understand their children and their lives.

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  • Let's Teach Our Teachers
    Feb. 27, 2012 Caroline Miller

    These days I wince when I read stories about how good teachers are the most important factor in how well our students learn. Not because it's not true—it is—but because it's actually been turned into a weapon against teachers. Blame for failing schools is more and more focused on poor teachers, and exposing the "bad apples" has become a rallying cry.

    It's absolutely true that there are some weak teachers in most schools, and that those who aren't doing their jobs should be fired.

    But the public campaign to drum out teachers with weak evaluations by airing them publicly is more punitive than effective. Any good behavioral therapist will tell you that humiliation is a lousy motivator. And it misses the most important point: The goal should not be just to separate good teachers from bad, but to teach teachers how to be more effective.

    In many troubled schools, we drop teachers into almost impossible situations, with huge classes of students who are just not socialized to function well in school, either because they have mental health problems or they come from homes that are chaotic or abusive. Teachers, many of them barely out of college, may know a lot about instruction, but little about managing problem behavior.

    We recently met with Nancy Rappoport, a psychiatrist and professor at Harvard Medical School who focuses on how schools handle (and help) children with mental health issues. Dr. Rappaport has written, with behavior analyst Jessica Minahan, a book called The Behavior Code that lays out techniques for minimizing disruptive behavior in the classroom. We know from our experience at the Child Mind Institute that giving parents and teachers the right tools can help kids who are out of control rein in their problematic behavior and function much better in school and at home.  We're doing a pilot program for this training in New York City schools as we speak.

    If we really believe good teaching is the key to student achievement, shouldn't it also be the key to teacher achievement?

    Bill Gates, who's poured a lot of money and energy into improving schools, gets it exactly right in a recent op-ed piece in the New York Times called "Shame Is Not the Solution": "Developing a systematic way to help teachers get better is the most powerful idea in education today. The surest way to weaken it is to twist it into a capricious exercise in public shaming." 

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  • Congratulations to Roy and Ilean Helland
    Feb. 27, 2012 Caroline Miller

    Those of us at the Child Mind Institute were thrilled last night when Roy Helland won the Academy Award for Best Makeup for The Iron Lady, and then again when Meryl Streep, winning the Oscar for Best Actress, delivered a emotional shout-out to Roy, who's worked with her on nearly every movie she's made since Sophie's Choice. Roy's wife is Ilean Helland, who's worked with Dr. Harold Koplewicz as his executive assistant for 10 years, playing a key leadership role and helping change the lives of thousands of struggling children. We congratulate both Roy and Ilean on this great honor.

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  • Tumblr Bans 'Thinspo' Blogs
    Feb. 24, 2012 Rachel Ehmke

    Tumblr has announced a new policy to ban content that actively promotes or glorifies self-destructive behaviors including eating disorders, self-injury, and suicide. We've previously reported on Tumblr's dangerous popularity with "thinspiration," or "thinspo," bloggers who use the platform to post encouragement and tips for sustaining starvation.

    Some users object that the proposed ban infringes on their right to free speech. Others ask just what the blogging platform considers censor-worthy. Tumblr leadership tried to clarify on the staff blog: 

    "Online dialogue about these acts and conditions is incredibly important; this prohibition is intended to reach only those blogs that cross the line into active promotion or glorification. For example, joking that you need to starve yourself after Thanksgiving or that you wanted to kill yourself after a humiliating date is fine, but recommending techniques for self-starvation or self-mutilation is not."

    Still others worry that banning dangerous content effectively pushes the problem into the closet. One user shared her fear that the ban would make people who need help feel "even more desperate and voiceless."

    Tumblr does seem to be conscious of this criticism, and says they will be deploying PSA-style notices when users search the site for terms considered dangerous, like "thinspo," "proana" and "purging."

    In all, most people seem to support the new policy. It certainly seems like a good idea to us, and we admire Tumblr for their sense of corporate social responsibility. The proposed policy changes will go into effect "in the very near future," according to the staff blog. In the meantime, Tumblr leadership is inviting the public to send suggestions to policy@tumblr.com.

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  • 'Am I Ugly?' Videos: The Cyberworld as Mirror
    Feb. 24, 2012 Charlie Gross

    It should come as no surprise that parents are often the last to hear about viral online trends. Many of us just are now catching up, thanks to several stories in the last couple of days, to the phenomenon of "Am I Ugly?" videos that have surfaced on YouTube and elsewhere. Posted largely by middle school-age girls (about 25% are boys), and broadcast from their homes, the confessional videos starkly ask the cyberworld: "Am I Ugly or Pretty?"  One of these has received over 3.5 million hits and nearly 100,000 comments.

    The videos themselves are hard to watch. They are ripe with all that is painful, awkward and vulnerable about being an adolescent and looking to others to provide a sense of self worth. But they're equally alarming as a window into how adeptly pre-teens can reveal themselves to the world online. Exhibitionism is one of the mainstays of the Internet, but what is cringe-worthy here is how such young kids can seek and then become the object of anonymous commentary on a mass level—a process that can elicit superficial flattery at best and anonymous cruelty and overt sexuality at worst. The comments may even be more harrowing than the videos.

    "Am I Ugly?" videos also bring up another great parenting challenge of our time—managing online and school bullying. In one of the videos, a 13-year-old named Faye describes being called alternately ugly and pretty at school, and it is clear that soliciting validation online is sometimes an attempt to make sense of painful and confusing comments kids endure in their daily lives.

    We can bemoan the fact that these vulnerable children make what seems to us to be a self-destructive decision to go public with their insecurity, but our culture is saturated with it—take virtually any reality TV show. These should be one more reminder to pay attention to what our tweens and teens are up to on their iPhones and, more importantly, to pay close attention to them as they try to figure out who they are, and want to be, amidst a world of anonymous eyes.   

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  • Conflating ADHD and Creativity (and Beating Up on Parents—Again)
    Feb. 21, 2012 Caroline Miller

    This weekend the New York Times published another op ed piece in what's become a de facto series of attacks on psychiatry—the fourth so far this year trivializing the impairment that can come with a disorder and the usefulness (in some cases) of medication. 

    The last two were about how kids with Asperger's are just "clumsy, lonely teenagers" who don't benefit from either a diagnosis or intervention. This one, "The Art of Distraction," is about how kids with ADHD shouldn't get medication, because distraction enhances creativity.

    One commenter, Dr. Leon Zacharowicz, nailed our feeling about this piece pretty succinctly: 

    Will the next series of articles be about asthma and how having shortness of breath every now and then is a good thing, kind of like falling in love?

    The piece is by Hanif Kureishi, a celebrated novelist, playwright and screenwriter, who uses his own success as a writer to argue that there's nothing wrong with being distracted and failing in school—It worked for him!—and that parents who give children medication for ADHD are strong-arming them into a narrow notion of achievement. He thinks they're driven by a fear of creativity, akin to a fear of sex. Seriously:

    Ritalin and other forms of enforcement and psychological policing are the contemporary equivalent of the old practice of tying up children's hands in bed, so they won't touch their genitals. The parent stupefies the child for the parent's good. There is more to this than keeping out the interesting: there is the fantasy and terror that someone here will become pleasure's victim, disappearing into a spiral of enjoyment from which he or she will not return

    This is one of the most weirdly insulting attacks on parents I've seen and, as Judith Warner wrote about another piece in the Times series, "was like a ride backwards in a time capsule." Kureishi frames psychotropic medication (and neurobiology itself) as a kind of Orwellian conspiracy. He sees the freedom to fail in school as a civil rights issue.

    The analogy to sexual repression might make more sense if you know that Kureishi got his start as a writer in pornography. And I'm tempted to argue that his hostility towards parents reflects his antagonistic relationship with his own. He writes movingly of his miserable childhood, of humiliations at his father's hand, of feeling "badly beaten" in school, of envying the competence of others, of his depressed teenage years.

    He also describes the gradual process by which he learned how to manage his own distraction effectively:

    In the end, a person requires a method. He must be able to distinguish between creative and destructive distractions by the sort of taste they leave, whether they feel depleting or fulfilling. And this can work only if he is, as much as possible, in good communication with himself—if he is, as it were, on his own side, caring for himself imaginatively, an artist of his own life.

    That's a great description of how many people with ADHD eventually learn to manage their impulsiveness and distraction (often with an assist from medication, I might add), and we're delighted that it worked for Kureishi. Indeed many people with ADHD describe their creative passions as their salvation. Acting, writing, music, dance, visual arts, and sports have become the focal point for countless people who have struggled to focus more broadly in their lives. Who wouldn't applaud them, and hope that every child will find that transforming passion?

    What we don't applaud is the romanticizing of unhappy childhoods: Just because some children with ADHD or other disorders become brilliant writers or actors doesn't justify watching children struggle and not trying to help them. It doesn't justify making the bogus leap that taking medication will prevent them from finding that passion. And especially it doesn't justify attacking compassionate parents as prudes who are afraid their children might have too much fun being distracted.

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  • Are Middle Schoolers Too Young for Facebook?
    Feb. 16, 2012 Caroline Miller

    It seems there are some 7.5 million children under 13 now on Facebook. Never mind that it's technically illegal—you're supposed to be 13 to sign up, but how hard is it to fudge your age? This explosion of middle school social media is the subject of a terrific piece for parents on redbookmag.com about the implications of Facebook for young adolescents.

    What's most compelling in this piece isn't the potential threat of sexual predators (real), or even the potential threat of 12-year-old mean girls (more real). "Girls lob words the way they slingshot Angry Birds," writes Susan Dominus, "but what comes crashing down is another girl's confidence."

    The more insidious problem she spells out is that even ordinary, seemingly non-toxic stuff on Facebook can put a lot of stress on the fragile ego of an average 12-year-old. The competition for "friends" and "likes" and cool pictures and status-building status-updates can amplify insecurities.

    "Just at the age when they are starting to figure out what a best friend means, and feeling desperately afraid of losing that friend, they are being exposed to lots of anxiety triggers," one educator tells Dominus. "Girls 'marry' and break up with each other over the course of a day, all in hopes of illustrating their popularity," says another. There are risks for boys, too, but Dominus cites evidence that "within middle school kids under 12, girls manipulate each other on Facebook much worse than boys."

    Still many parents feel sitting out Facebook isn't a viable option for their middle schoolers—that it would leave them socially and culturally isolated. Read the story for suggestions on how to guide tweens and young teens who are taking the plunge. The short version: Do insist on friending your child, so you can keep track of her activity. But don't post on her wall if you want to stay on speaking terms.

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  • Phoning In a Cure for Depression
    Feb. 13, 2012 Harry Kimball

    Yup, there's an app for that, or will be soon. At Northwestern University, psychologists are developing a phone smart enough to detect signs of an oncoming depressive episode and steer the user towards social behavior and enjoyable activities. Called Mobilyze!, the device will track everything from physical activity and location to the frequency of social communication via telephone or email. If the phone thinks your mood is depressed, it will suggest you take a walk or keep a date with friends.

    "It creates a positive feedback loop," inventor David Mohr tells LiveScience. "Someone is encouraged to see friends, then enjoys himself and wants to do it again." This prevents the opposite from happening. "Ruminating alone at home has the opposite effect and causes a downward spiral." 

    The admirable aspect of this approach is that it stresses early intervention, and envisions a world where clinical insight is more integrated into the lives and attitudes of patients. "If we can develop interventions that fit more smoothly into the fabric of life," Mohr says, more people will take advantage of them. Instead of waiting for depression to become clinically significant, he says, "we're developing systems that identify when people are at risk for feeling worse or when engaged in activities that are likely to help them, and contact them then instead."

    The flipside of this is that depression is a real illness that deserves the careful attention of a trained clinician, someone who is skilled at diagnosis and the treatment that can be so effective. That can't fit in a phone, no matter how smart it is, and some wonder if Mobilyze! might actually dissuade people from getting the help they need. 

    At Mashable, many comments were dismissive. "It cannot tell you if you are depressed or anything else about you," a psychologist writes, "and apps wont be able to treat mood disorders and psychological issues." Another reader raised the spectre of the false hope a device could provide. "Someone who relies on a bit of tech instead of visiting their doctor for professional treatment could be making a 'big' mistake."

    Still, the future of this concept is unclear. A small study found that Mobilyze! reduced symptoms in patients who already had diagnoses of depression, by helping them notice maladaptive behaviors. Whether or not it takes off, the inventors' hearts are in the right place, as echoed by another comment at Mashable. "If one person was helped because of this app, wouldn't it be a good idea?"

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