The Child Mind BlogBrainstorm

  • 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

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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 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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  • The Secret Online World of Eating Disorders
    Feb. 10, 2012 Rachel Ehmke

    Anorexia and bulimia are generally considered lonely disorders. The girls (and boys) who struggle with them do so in secret, taking great pains to camouflage the destructive behaviors that everyone else considers unhealthy and alarming but to them feels essential. Attaining a low (and then lower and lower) body weight becomes an obsession, and an alienating one because when people don't understand the obsession it can feel like they don't understand the person—you. 

    But according to a new story from The Huffington Post, having an eating disorder isn't as lonely as it used to be. For some time now online communities have been popping up for people who want to talk about their eating disorder—or "extremely low-calorie lifestyle," as one girl puts it—and get support and encouragement from like-minded peers. The girls read each other's blogs and feel like they know each other because they share everything: their weight loss goals, tips for suppressing hunger, food diaries recording everything they've eaten that day and how many calories they burned at the gym. (New phone apps make calorie-counting, and sharing, easy.) They even Skype each other through rough patches when the desire to binge eat gets too strong. The blogging platform Tumblr has particularly taken off as a source for "thinspiration," or "thinspo," with lots of glam fashion photography and inspirational quotes.

    In keeping with the secretive nature of eating disorders, people keep "thinspo" lives private. "It's like we're all part of this secret community that most of our family and friends don't have the slightest clue about," a girl named Natalie tells Huffington Post reporter Carolyn Gregoire. Natalie wants her friends to think she has recovered from her past bulimia, so she hides the evidence, even from her other social networking outlets. "My Twitter and Facebook are personal," she explains. But "thinspo" is different.

    Treating eating disorders involves changing a person's very lifestyle and sense of self. We know that the most successful treatment starts at home, and involves the participation of everyone important in a child's life. But when all of your best friends are also anorexic, it makes recovery doubly difficult. Thankfully Tumblr and other major social networking sites say they are meeting with experts to try and end these secret communities that are making recovery so difficult—and relapse so easy.

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  • Ryan Gosling Strips for Special Needs
    Feb. 9, 2012 Rachel Ehmke

    Lately it seems like mental health topics have been even more divisive than usual. Passionate arguments are circulating about what is and what isn't a disorder, how disorders are caused and whether popular medications are actually effective. Ryan GoslingEven Hollywood is getting pulled into the fray. As usual, families are on the front lines of these conversations, and it must be difficult to have the extremely personal issue of your child's mental health being tossed around for public debate. But families, take heart: Ryan Gosling is on your side. And he isn't wearing a shirt.

    Enter Sunday Stillwell, a special needs mom who's seen it all and, luckily for us, has a sense of humor about it. Stillwell created the fantastic Special Needs Ryan Gosling meme, inspired by all the other Gosling memes out there. Through thick and thin, through sensory issues, IEPs, and interminable phone calls with the insurance company, Stillwell wants you to know that Ryan Gosling admires all your hard work and devotion, and he's happy to tell you himself, while gazing moodily off into space, or sitting suavely at the bar, or eating his morning Wheaties. Check out Stillwell's handiwork over at her blog Adventures in Extreme Parenthood.

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  • Three Great Takes on the ADHD Flap
    Feb. 9, 2012 Caroline Miller

    There has been a lot of passionate back-and-forth in the last two weeks about the virtues of ADHD medication, kicked off by L. Alan Sroufe's broadside on the op ed page of the New York Times opposing medication and asserting that ADHD is caused by parental neglect or, oddly, its opposite, "patterns of parental intrusiveness." 

    Judith Warner put Sroufe's argument in perspective in Time magazine, noting that his essay was "like a ride backwards in a time capsule." That is, back to when autism and schizophrenia were said to be caused by cold or toxic mothers, and stigma prevented most parents from getting help for struggling children. A specialist in attachment who did his major work in the 1970s, Sroufe "wages what appears to be a late-career turf war with biological psychiatry," Warner writes, and accuses parents of giving the kids pills to get themselves off the hook.

    Dr. Ned Hallowell also weighed in with an excellent analysis, wincing at Sroufe's charge that medication is being offered by drug-happy clinicians as a cure-all that prevents us from getting to the root causes of behavior problems. "Sure, some doctors over-medicate, while other doctors never medicate because they 'don't believe in ADHD' and 'don't believe in Ritalin,' " he writes. "But as long as we use it properly, it remains one of our most valuable—and tested—medications."

    Finally Donna Wick at the Freedom Institute, which offers substance abuse treatment and prevention workshops for schools, speaks to the unacknowledged point here: that adolescence is a very perilous time for kids with ADHD, who are at substantially higher risk than other kids not only for problems in school but for substance abuse and other dangerous behavior. Studies show those risks are reduced when kids are being treated with ADHD medications. 

    "Parents have to make their own choices about stimulant medication for their child," Wick concludes. "But in my professional capacity at Freedom Institute, I would be remiss if I didn't draw parents' attention to the correlation between ADHD and substance abuse, as well as the studies that indicate that stimulant medication is a protective factor."    

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