I’ve ended many nights, as I’m sure you have, lying in bed awash in the glow from my cellphone: bleary-eyed, a strange mixture of emptiness, jealousy, and dread stirring somewhere deep inside of me as I absorb the highly curated lives of my friends and the sound-bitten headlines of the news. I’ll turn to find my wife next to me, similarly glassy-eyed, and we’ll lie together this way—silent and passive receptacles of whatever our phones are feeding us—until it is time to place our portals to the world on our chargers and turn in for the night.
We’ll awake in the morning to grab our phones from our bedside tables and scroll and scan and tap until it’s time to rise and take care of our children—an 8-year-old boy and a 10-year-old girl. And we’ll spend at least some portion of each day attempting to manage their time in front of screens, fretting about what the screens are doing to their brains and their relationships, to the way they interact with the world around them.
Because my wife and I grew up in a world with fewer screens and a tenth of the distractions, we can remember a time when we weren’t beholden to the bedtime glow, the pings and notifications and buzzes and bleeps. And weren’t things better then? Purer? More human?
But the battle to minimize screen time—for ourselves and our children—is brutal and incessant, shots fired every waking hour.
By bedtime, when the screen cease-fire with our children commences, there is something comforting about the glow from our own screens; time to soothe our wounds with the very weapons that inflicted them.
It is a feeling specific to our modern moment: helplessness in the face of technology’s flood, the feeling that we’ve lost something somewhere in the depths, that we’ve been swept up in the tide and carried out to sea. And before we knew we were even going to get wet, we realize we need a life jacket, and we need it now.
Fortunately, a number of IU researchers believe that the very things that carried us out to sea may just have the potential to save us.
Using Tech to Turn the Tide
“I think one of the biggest challenges of our day is how technology and our online lives have started to affect our well-being,” says Johan Bollen, professor in the IU School of Informatics, Computing, and Engineering.
Bollen has been measuring public sentiment via social media for the better part of the last decade. In 2012, the media dubbed him The Twitter Predictor, and he appeared on CNBC, Fox, Bloomberg, and elsewhere sharing his research on how to take the public’s emotional temperature via a massive number of Tweets—and then use that information to predict changes in the stock market.
Since then, his research focus has shifted from stocks to our collective well-being. “At IU, we have technology that enables us to analyze up to 60 million Tweets a day,” Bollen says. “That’s an enormous sample of humanity self-reporting on their well-being and sociological status.”
Bollen and his team employ an algorithm to identify speech patterns that indicate unhappiness. “We can capture the longitudinal timelines for millions of people—all of their Tweets over time—and in those timelines, they’re reporting how they feel. From this information, we can construct an overall view of how happy they are and how their happiness fluctuates over time.”
Bollen’s research indicated that they could predict when a Twitter user was about to express a negative emotion based on the language they used in Tweets leading up to the expression of that emotion. “Your language starts to betray your emotion about an hour and a half before it’s expressed,” Bollen notes.
His goal with this information? To develop a system of warning signals to send to users in real time to help regulate their mood, effectively offsetting the negative emotions caused, in part, by using social media . . . with social media itself. “We’re on the cusp of developing tools you could employ online that nudge hundreds of millions of people toward a healthier state of mind. This is something that could save lives.”
Cognitive Behavioral Therapy in the Palm of Your Hand
One of Bollen’s research partners, Lorenzo Lorenzo-Luaces, assistant professor of clinical psychology at IU, plans to utilize the data pulled from those millions of Tweets to guide users toward the most appropriate form of mental health treatment.
While some of these users might require face-to-face therapy, a great number will benefit from the help of internet-based cognitive behavioral therapy (iCBT), self-guided mental health programs available through websites or in the app store. Lorenzo-Luaces recently led a study published in the Journal of Medical Internet Research that found iCBT effective in treating mild, moderate, and severe depression.
“One of the biggest challenges with therapy is that there will always be more people who need it than there are doctors to treat them,” Lorenzo-Luaces says. “[iCBT] helps meet the demand for therapy in a cost-effective way that could also potentially free up therapists to spend a greater portion of their time treating more severe cases.”
In addition, Lorenzo-Luaces believes iCBT can help people who can’t attend traditional face-to-face therapy sessions due to busy work schedules or geographic location. In particular, he sees iCBT as a vital tool in helping Indiana’s rural populations. “It really pains me the number of people who go untreated when we know that sometimes all people need is a little bit of advice or information,” Lorenzo-Luaces says. “We just need to do a better job of disseminating our treatments to more vulnerable populations.”
Saved by the Ping
Much like Bollen and Lorenzo-Luaces, Sara Konrath, associate professor of philanthropic studies in the IU Lilly Family School of Philanthropy at IUPUI, is interested in utilizing mobile technology to improve how we relate to one another.
In particular, Konrath is harnessing the cellphone’s power as a habit former to help us develop more empathic behaviors. “When we think of cellphones, we don’t often think about their potential use as habit formers—and when we do, we associate them with bad habits,” Konrath says. “Yet public health researchers have been using text messages to create healthy habits for over a decade. For example, text messages can help people quit smoking or monitor their blood sugar levels if they’re diabetic. Text messaging has even broken into the mental health field in attempting to treat eating disorders and schizophrenia. Why not use cell phones to build better relationship skills?”
Through two programs called Random App of Kindness and Text to Connect, that’s exactly what Konrath has done. Random App of Kindness uses a series of mini games—like matching a cartoon face to a corresponding emotion—to help children build empathy and promote prosocial behavior. Text to Connect sends users six text messages each day to encourage empathic behavior and connection with others. Sample messages include: “Think of a close family member. Think about what you like about them.” And:
The next time you see someone, no matter who they are, give them a real smile.
Konrath and her team conducted two separate studies on the efficacy of Text to Connect, one with 90 college students, and a second with 555 teens. After two weeks of receiving the text messages, they found the program effective in reducing aggressive beliefs, especially in males. What’s more, the number of hours that participants volunteered to help someone in distress increased over the same time frame. Finally, outside observers rated people who had received empathy text messages as more empathic.
One study participant offered the following feedback: “I love the way that every time I got a text, no matter what it was that I was doing, I would look at my phone, and for a minute, I would be able to think about things that matter deeply to me.”
Transfer of Power
Apple recently released a commercial for the new iPhone XR, touting the device’s improved battery life. The commercial shows a variety of people fighting to stay awake in front of their phones, in dark spaces ranging from bedrooms to tollbooths. As the humans nod off and “power down,” the glow from their phones burns on. “You’ll lose power before it will,” the ad promises.
Some nights, it feels like we have lost the power—we, the mere mortals bested by extraordinary devices of our own creation. But recently, after days spent talking with brilliant IU researchers, I’ve gone to bed with a sense of hope and excitement. I’m hopeful about the power of humans: our ingenuity and innovation; our ability to remove ourselves from technology’s deluge, to study its ebbs and flows.
These IU researchers make me believe that we can take back technology’s power and harness it, no longer riding the wave to wherever it may take us—those troublesome depths, those unknown waters—but turning the tide and guiding the wave toward whatever shore we wish to inhabit next.
To support the work of the amazing researchers featured in this story, contact:
Travis Paulin, executive director of advancement, College of Arts and Sciences; firstname.lastname@example.org
Tom Bewley, assistant dean for development, School of Informatics, Computing, and Engineering; email@example.com
Susan Perry, associate director of development, Lilly Family School of Philanthropy; firstname.lastname@example.org