The Empathy Gap

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Harnessing Mobile Media for Good

Cellphones as health and well-being coaches

Mobile media have proven to be a double-sided coin in terms of our relationships with others. On the one hand, mobile media can threaten people’s social connections. Many screen-filled moments happen at the expense of real-live social interactions. Several scholars have suggested that new media, including mobile technologies, may impair relationship bonding processes [1, 2]. For example, one well-designed experiment found that the mere presence of a cell phone in the room resulted in lower feelings of closeness and trust between two conversing strangers [3]. Studies have also found that simple reminders of cell phones can reduce empathy and make people less likely to help others in need [3, 4]. It may be less surprising then that our research found that declines in college students’ empathy coincided with the rise of social media and mobile phone usage [5]. Yet, mobile media can also make people feel more connected to others [6, 7]. They can help us to feel closer to our loved ones even if we are physically distant from them, which is likely one of the very reasons that they are so attractive and popular. The implications of mobile phones can go much further than this, if we would use our imaginations.

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One of the most exciting areas of research that I’ve learned about in the past couple of years is the use of mobile phones by health practitioners and researchers to promote people’s health and well-being. As early as 2003, innovative public health researchers were using text messages to improve the physical health behaviors of people with diabetes [8] and bulimia nervosa [9]. Since text messages are simple and widely available to anyone with a cell phone, it is not surprising that these ideas quickly caught on [10-16].

But it has been far less common to use such techniques to alter social and psychological outcomes [17], which also have important public health implications. Doing so could help to address two main barriers to mental health treatment—that there are many underserved populations who have limited access to such treatments (e.g. uninsured people or those living in rural locations), and that even when access is readily available, mental illnesses are still stigmatized. These new technologies can provide private and personalized support to anyone who owns a phone, and mobile phones have recently begun to be used to support people with depression and other mental illnesses [18-20].

Even mentally healthy people have their ups and downs. One premise of cognitive-behavioral therapy is that happiness is to some extent under people’s control, if we would learn to replace maladaptive habits of mind (e.g. “I failed this test so I am a failure”) with more specific, realistic, and adaptive ones (e.g. “I failed this test, so maybe I need a tutor to help me improve next time”). Imagine receiving text messages or using a smartphone app to help to correct such maladaptive thought patterns, and to help people become more aware of their emotional triggers [21, 22].

Every relationship also has its ups and downs. Imagine receiving regular electronic encouragement and support to become a better relationship partner [23], parent [24], and a kinder person by receiving regular text messages designed to keep people in a mindful, other-oriented state [25, 26].

In our fast-paced 24-7 connected world, in part caused by the rise of mobile communication, it is easy to be continually stressed, hurried, and reactive. Yet the very technology that has increased our sense of urgency and pace of life is the same that can help us to slow down and enjoy it – and others.

Supporting references / Further reading

1. Konrath, S., The empathy paradox: Increasing disconnection in the age of increasing connection, in Handbook fo Research on Technoself: Identity in a Technological Society, R. Luppicini, Editor. 2012, IGI Global.

2. Turkle, S., Alone together: Why we expect more from technology and less from each other. 2012: Basic Books.

3. Przybylski, A.K. and N. Weinstein, Can you connect with me now? How the presence of mobile communication technology influences face-to-face conversation quality. Journal of Social and Personal Relationships, 2013. 30(3): p. 237-246.

4. Abraham, A., A. Pocheptsova, and R. Ferraro, The effect of mobile phone use on prosocial behavior. Unpublished manuscript, 2012.

5. Konrath, S., E. O'Brien, and C. Hsing, Changes in dispositional empathy in American college students over time: a meta-analysis. Personality and Social Psychology Review, 2011. 15(2): p. 180-98.

6. (2013) Always connected: How Smartphones and Social Keep Us Engaged. International Data Corporation, Sponsored by Facebook.

7. Hampton, K., et al. Why most Facebook users get more than they give. 2012; Available from: http://www.pewinternet.org/Reports/2012/Facebook-users/Summary/Po....

8. Franklin, V., et al., " Sweet Talk": text messaging support for intensive insulin therapy for young people with diabetes. Diabetes technology & therapeutics, 2003. 5(6): p. 991-996.

9. Bauer, S., et al., Use of text messaging in the aftercare of patients with bulimia nervosa. European Eating Disorders Review, 2003. 11(3): p. 279-290.

10. Whittaker, R., et al., Mobile phone-based interventions for smoking cessation. Cochrane database syst Rev, 2009. 4.

11. Rabin, C. and B. Bock, Desired features of smartphone applications promoting physical activity. Telemedicine and e-Health, 2011. 17(10): p. 801-803.

12. Liang, X., et al., Effect of mobile phone intervention for diabetes on glycaemic control: a meta-analysis. Diabetic Medicine, 2011. 28(4): p. 455-463.

13. Fjeldsoe, B.S., A.L. Marshall, and Y.D. Miller, Behavior change interventions delivered by mobile telephone short-message service. American journal of preventive medicine, 2009. 36(2): p. 165.

14. Klasnja, P. and W. Pratt, Healthcare in the pocket: Mapping the space of mobile-phone health interventions. Journal of biomedical informatics, 2012. 45(1): p. 184-198.

15. Heron, K.E. and J.M. Smyth, Ecological momentary interventions: incorporating mobile technology into psychosocial and health behaviour treatments. British journal of health psychology, 2010. 15(1): p. 1-39.

16. Krishna, S., S.A. Boren, and E.A. Balas, Healthcare via cell phones: a systematic review. Telemedicine and e-Health, 2009. 15(3): p. 231-240.

17. Miller, G., The smartphone psychology manifesto. Perspectives on Psychological Science, 2012. 7(3): p. 221-237.

18. Burns, M.N., et al., Harnessing context sensing to develop a mobile intervention for depression. Journal of medical Internet research, 2011. 13(3).

19. Depp, C.A., et al., Mobile interventions for severe mental illness: design and preliminary data from three approaches. The Journal of nervous and mental disease, 2010. 198(10): p. 715.

20. Granholm, E., et al., Mobile Assessment and Treatment for Schizophrenia (MATS): a pilot trial of an interactive text-messaging intervention for medication adherence, socialization, and auditory hallucinations. Schizophrenia bulletin, 2012. 38(3): p. 414-425.

21. Morris, M.E., et al., Mobile therapy: case study evaluations of a cell phone application for emotional self-awareness. Journal of medical Internet research, 2010. 12(2).

22. Della Porta, M.D., et al., Pursuing Happiness In Everyday Life: The Characteristics and Behaviors of Online Happiness Seekers Emotion, 2013. in press.

23. Kalinka, C.J., F.D. Fincham, and A.H. Hirsch, A randomized clinical trial of online–biblio relationship education for expectant couples. Journal of Family Psychology, 2012. 26(1): p. 159.

24. Whittaker, R., et al., Text4baby: Development and implementation of a national text messaging health information service. American Journal of Public Health, 2012. 102(12): p. 2207-2213.

25. Rajabi, A., et al., Effects of Counseling by Mobile Phone Short Message Service (SMS) on Reducing Aggressive Behavior in Adolescence. Procedia-Social and Behavioral Sciences, 2012. 46: p. 1138-1142.

26. Konrath, S., Fuhrel-Forbis, A., Liu, M., Ho, S., Swain, J. E., & Tolman, R. M., Using text messages to increase empathy and prosocial behavior. Manuscript in progress, 2013.

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NOTE: This blog was originally posted at: http://resiliencetech.ning.com/blog/harnessing-mobile-media-for-good

Sara Konrath, Ph.D., is on the faculty of the Research Center for Group Dynamics at the University of Michigan.

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