From Civil War Letters to Instagram: Social Media Trends Are Nothing New

It might seem new, and maybe narcissistic, that people feel the need to share their lives with the world – tweeting about what they had for breakfast and sharing videos on Instagram of their kid getting a haircut.

Think again.

In a new book, Lee Humphreys, associate professor of communication at Cornell University, argues that the act of documenting and sharing one’s everyday life is not new – nor is it particularly narcissistic. “The Qualified Self: Social Media and the Accounting of Everyday Life” puts our mobile and social media use in a historical context, and shows how pocket diaries, photo albums and baby books are the predigital precursors of today’s digital and mobile platforms for posting text and images.

“Like social media accounts, these are shared and circulated and commented on. They are not just about the self but they are about other people and their lives,” said Humphreys, who studies the social uses and perceived effects of communication technology. “What people are doing with social media – how they’re using it to communicate, to understand themselves – is quite an old practice.”

The book stemmed from Humphreys’ empirical study comparing a Civil War diarist to a U.S. military blogger in Afghanistan. During the Civil War, the letters and diaries soldiers sent to their families provided an important source of news for the larger community back home. They would routinely be circulated around town and printed in the local newspaper. “There was this sense that they were writing for a potentially broader audience than just the addressees of the letter,” Humphreys said. “And of course the blogger did a similar kind of thing.”

She also analyzed the content of tweets and so-called “accounting diaries” from the early 19th century – and found similarities there, too. Both have entries that consist of a few words or sentences that catalogue daily activities and events – such as a morning trip to Starbucks or who stopped by the house that day – and these accounting diaries would commonly be shared with friends and family.

“We see people sharing everyday, mundane moments as a way of reinforcing social ties,” Humphreys said. “That was certainly the case historically and it’s one of the main reasons why people share things like that on social media today.”

However, one thing dramatically sets apart how we account our daily lives now: the fact that social media companies commodify people’s activity. “They have a financial incentive to get you to post and share, because the more you do, the more they can learn about you and the better they can sell to you,” she said. “And there’s more content for other people to look at, as well.”

In contrast, Kodak, for example, printed the photos that a family would put in its scrapbook; the company had access to the photos but didn’t commodify them. “This is a very different role for corporate entities,” Humphreys said, “to have not only access to our media accounts but also the ability to use that information and couple it with other forms of data to sell us things.”

Gay, Bisexual, Sexually Abused Male Inmates More Fearful of Prison Rape, More Open to Therapy

There is nowhere to escape in what often is referred to as a “sexual jungle,” especially for the most vulnerable. However, “Zero tolerance” toward prison rape is now national policy thanks to the Prison Rape Elimination Act passed by the United States Congress in 2003. Although this law changed how Americans think about prison rape, few studies have examined how inmates perceive rape and if they feel safe in prison. Even less is known about how their perceptions influence whether or not they ask for mental health treatment while incarcerated.

The most recent National Inmate Survey of 2011-12 of 92,449 inmates age 18 or older shows that among non-heterosexual prison inmates, more than 12 percent reported sexual victimization by another inmate and almost 5.5 percent were victimized by a prison staff member within the past 12 months. In comparison, 1.2 percent of heterosexual prisoners were sexually victimized by an inmate and 2.1 percent were victimized by a prison staff member. These rates are even higher for those with mental illness. About one in 12 inmates with a mental disorder report at least one incident of sexual victimization by another inmate over a six-month period, compared to one in 33 male inmates without a mental disorder.

Using data from more than 400 male inmates housed in 23 maximum-security prisons across the U.S., researchers from Florida Atlantic University conducted a novel study to examine the factors related to fear of rape in prison and the likelihood of male inmates requesting mental health treatment while incarcerated. They focused specifically on prisoners at risk of being sexually victimized in prison: gay or bisexual inmates and those with a history of childhood sexual abuse.

A key finding from the study, published in the Journal of Interpersonal Violence, is that sexual orientation and a history of childhood sexual abuse are significant predictors of male inmates fearing rape as a big threat in prison and voluntarily requesting mental health treatment. Findings from the study reveal that nearly 38 percent of gay and bisexual inmates and 37 percent of inmates with childhood sexual abuse fear rape as a big threat.

Compared with straight inmates, gay and bisexual inmates are approximately two times more likely to perceive rape as a threat and three times more likely to voluntarily request mental health treatment in prison. Inmates with a history of childhood sexual abuse are more than twice as likely to perceive rape as a threat and almost four times more likely to request mental health treatment than inmates who did not report a history of childhood sexual abuse. Notably, this finding is inconsistent with previous research that has shown that there is no significant relationship between childhood sexual abuse and feelings of safety among male inmates.

“The consequences of perceiving rape to be a threat in prison are vast and could contribute to violence among inmates as well as negative mental health ramifications such as increased fear, psychological distress, chronic anxiety, depression and thoughts of suicide,” said Cassandra A. Atkin-Plunk, Ph.D., co-author and an assistant professor in the School of Criminology and Criminal Justice within FAU’s College for Design and Social Inquiry.

Inmates incarcerated for two to five years are nearly three times more likely to perceive that rape is a big threat compared with inmates incarcerated for less than two years. Inmates in prison longer than 18 years are nearly four times more likely to voluntarily request mental health treatment in prison. The researchers also found that Black inmates are twice as likely to seek mental health treatment in prison compared to White inmates.

“Knowing that gay and bisexual inmates and inmates with a history of childhood sexual abuse are more likely to fear rape and seek mental health treatment, prison staff can target outreach and treatment efforts for this vulnerable sub-population,” said Mina Ratkalkar, LCSW, MS, lead author and a licensed clinical social worker pursuing a Ph.D. who conducted the study while she was a graduate student at FAU. “Our study shows that these sub-groups of inmates are receptive to treatment, and our findings have implications for both practice and policy in the United States.”

The sample consisted of a nearly equal number of men in their 20s, 30s and 40s. Black inmates made up about half of the sample, with White inmates comprising about one-third of the sample. Nearly one-third of the sample had previously been in juvenile detention and about one-quarter were incarcerated for the first time in the adult criminal justice system at age 18 or younger.

About 16.4 percent of the sample identified as gay or bisexual. About one-fifth of the men (73) reported a history of childhood sexual abuse, and about one-third of the men reported having received mental health treatment outside of prison.

Tracking the Impact of Early Abuse and Neglect

Children who experience abuse and neglect early in life are more likely to have problems in social relationships and underachieve academically as adults.

Maltreatment experienced before age 5 can have negative effects that continue to be seen nearly three decades later, according to a new study led by Lee Raby, an assistant professor of psychology at the University of Utah.

“It is not a controversial statement to say abuse and neglect can have harmful consequences,” Raby said. “This study adds to that by showing that these effects are long term and don’t weaken with time. They persist from childhood across adolescence and into adulthood.”

The journal Child Development published the study. Co-authors are: Glenn I. Roisman and Madelyn H. Labella, Institute of Child Development, University of Minnesota; Jodi Martin, Department of Psychology, York University; R. Chris Fraley, Department of Psychology, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign; and Jeffry A. Simpson, Department of Psychology, University of Minnesota.

Raby said his team wanted to know two things: Does maltreatment early in life have long-term associations that extend into adulthood and do those effects remain stable or weaken over time?

The researchers used data from the Minnesota Longitudinal Study of Risk and Adaptation, which has followed participants since their births in the mid-1970s. The U study looked at data on 267 individuals who had reached ages between 32 and 34.

Information about the participants’ exposure to physical abuse, sexual abuse and neglect was gathered from multiple sources during two age periods: 0-5 years and 6-17.5 years. Throughout childhood and adolescence, teachers reported on the children’s functioning with peers. The children also completed standardized tests on academic achievement. The participants were interviewed again during their 20s and 30s, during which they discussed romantic experiences and educational attainment.

Unlike studies based on adults’ retrospective accounts of their childhood experiences, the data used here were collected in real-time. In addition, because data on the participants has been collected throughout their lifetimes, the researchers were able to disentangle the effects of maltreatment that occurred in their early years from experiences of abuse and neglect during later childhood.

“The design allows us to ask our two questions in a way no other study has before,” Raby said.

Raby said the findings showed those who experienced abuse or neglect early in life consistently were less successful in their social relationships and academic performance during childhood, adolescence and even during adulthood. The effects of maltreatment did not weaken as the participants got older.

“The harmful effect of early abuse and neglect was just as important when we were looking at outcomes at age 32 years as when we looked at outcomes at age 5,” he said.

The researchers found abuse and neglect in later childhood also impacted these competencies in adulthood, but that later maltreatment did not fully account for persistent and long-term influences attributed to abuse and neglect experienced in early childhood. They also found long-term difficulties with social functioning — but not academic achievement — occurred independent of such factors as gender, ethnicity and early socioeconomic status.

“These findings add more evidence for the importance of identifying high-risk families and attempting to intervene before experiences of abuse and neglect occur,” Raby said.

Technology and Children: A Parent’s Survival Guide

Technology has changed the way children develop and interact with others, and while it seems to change every day, many parents are forced to keep up or get left behind.

Jessica Mirman, Ph.D., an assistant professor in the Department of Psychology in the University of Alabama at Birmingham College of Arts and Sciences, says that, even though much of technology can receive a bad representation, it is not inherently bad.

“Parents can be pretty sophisticated with technology when it comes to helping their children develop,” she said. “There are a variety of apps that can help with literacy skills. Especially for children with developmental disabilities, technology can be very helpful at home and in the classroom.”

Play it safe

Mirman says technology can be a distraction and a safety hazard across developmental periods.

“Parents need to be aware of what kinds of devices are in their homes and vehicles,” she said.

Whether it is about accidentally swallowing button batteries, the tiny batteries often found in musical greeting cards, games, Christmas ornaments and cameras, or the risks of texting and driving, Mirman suggested that parental vigilance can save lives.

“For example, button batteries are small, shiny, and very appealing to infants and toddlers who may try to ingest them,” she said. “Parents need to keep these and other batteries out of reach and keep devices secure with openings kept shut.”

The types of technology risks can change with age. According to the National Highway Transportation Safety Administration, in 2015 alone, 3,477 people were killed, and 391,000 were injured in motor vehicle crashes involving distracted drivers. During daylight hours, approximately 660,000 drivers are using cellphones while driving. That creates enormous potential for deaths and injuries on U.S. roads.

“We always worry about when teens, and parents too, are glued to their phones while driving,” Mirman said. “There is also teen driver safety research that says when parents are calling, teens feel that they are expected to answer, even while driving. Parents need to remember to practice what they preach and model healthy technology habits at home and in the vehicle.”

What’s trending?

Social media is another way technology changes how people develop, according to Mirman. She says social media is a good tool to keep people connected; but there are guidelines and boundaries parents need to set, starting again, with practicing what they preach.

“Parents should practice moderation and respect for others on social media,” Mirman said. “Kids are very observant, and they will pick up on what parents do and often mimic those behaviors.”

She says children and teenagers are quick to point out any hypocrisy in parents.

Widespread and improved mobile technology means teens can access social media more easily. According to a Pew survey conducted during 2014 and 2015, 94 percent of teens who go online using a mobile device do so daily.

Mirman says parents who monitor their children’s social media usage need to start early to develop a foundation of trust with their teens. Parents cannot be around all the time, and teenagers will need to understand why they need to follow the rules, even when Mom and Dad are not watching.

“If an older child or teen really wants to get their hands on something online, they will likely find a way to do it,” Mirman said. “That is why parents need to be clear about their reasoning for why the rules are in place and not just be an enforcer of the rules.”

Screen time

According to the American Academy of Pediatrics, children younger than 18 months should avoid the use of screen media. Between ages 18 months and 24 months, some screen-time can be introduced, with parental supervision. Between the ages of 2 and 5 years, a maximum of one hour a day is recommended. For children above the age of 6, consistent time limits should be established.

Marcela Frazier, O.D., an associate professor in the UAB Department of Ophthalmology, says the amount of screen time a child has can have a negative impact on their eyesight.

“The more time children spend on devices, the less time they spend outdoors, and spending time outdoors could slow down the progression of nearsightedness, which is becoming more and more prevalent in children,” Frazier said. “Prolonged exposure to the screens of devices can cause eye fatigue, eye irritation and headaches due to the increased demand on the visual system and the tendency to not blink while using them.”

Frazier says adults usually report symptoms like eyestrain, dryness, headaches and eye irritation after prolonged use of near devices; however, children may experience these issues and not be able to communicate them accurately. Parents may notice some signs of eye irritation and fatigue related to screen-time in children manifested as excessive blinking, squinting, watery eyes, red eyes and some eye-rubbing.

The flip side

Mirman says much research has been done involving children and technology, but what happens when the parents are addicted to tech?

“If parents are distracted, they can’t pay attention to their children,” Mirman said. “Kids notice this quickly.”

She says, by being distracted with technology, parents can make their children feel rejected or unimportant. A more fluid boundary between home and work can add to that distraction.

Finding a remedy

Mirman says technology can be good, if used in moderation. Many kids can use age-appropriate video games as positive stimulants, and can use them as a way of positive social interaction with online multiplayer games. This can be especially helpful for socially marginalized children and teens.

“A lot of kids can make positive connections with others through multiplayer games or social media that they may not necessarily make in person,” she said.

She says it is important for families to create a positive culture around the phones and devices, and practice what she calls “phone hygiene.”

“Developing healthy habits is important not just for you but for the well-being of the entire family,” she said.

Study Examines Tolerance of Political Lies

Why do political figures appear to be able to get away with mild truth bending and sometimes even outrageous lies?

A new study, from researchers at the University of Illinois at Chicago and published online in Social Psychological and Personality Science, suggests people have more leniency for politicians’ lies when they bolster a shared belief that a specific political stance is morally right.

“It appears to be because those lies are perceived by supporters as an acceptable and perhaps necessary means to achieve a higher moral end,” says Allison Mueller, UIC doctoral candidate in psychology and lead author of the study. “A troubling and timely implication of these findings is that political figures may be able to act in corrupt ways without damaging their images, at least in the eyes of their supporters.”

Mueller and Linda Skitka, UIC professor of psychology, examined responses to a 2014 survey where participants read a political monologue about federal funding for Planned Parenthood that they believed was previously aired over public radio.

Respondents were randomly assigned one of two feedback conditions where upon completion they were informed that the monologue they had just read was either true or false.

They were then asked to report the extent to which they believed that the speaker was justified in delivering the monologue. Then, they reported their attitude positions for federal funding of women’s reproductive services and their moral conviction for the issue.

Although honesty was positively valued by all respondents, the researchers found that lying that served a shared moralized goal was more accepted and advocacy in support of the opposing view, or nonpreferred end, was more condemned, regardless of whether the statement was true or false.

Skitka says the findings expand knowledge of the moral mandate in two ways.

“Moral conviction for a cause, not the fairness of procedures, may shape people’s perceptions of any target who engages in norm-violating behaviors that uphold moralized causes, such as federally funded family planning in this situation,” she said. “The findings also suggest that, although people are not comfortable excusing others for heinous crimes that serve a moralized end, they appear comparatively tolerant of norm violations like lying.”

Why Facebook Is So Hard to Resist

Why is social media such a hard habit to break? Because it makes us feel good, said Michigan State University’s Allison Eden, assistant professor in the Department of Communication.

She and researchers from Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam and Radboud University Nijmegen, The Netherlands, conducted two studies of frequent and less frequent Facebook users.

They found even brief exposure to a Facebook-related image (logo, screenshot) can cause a pleasurable response in frequent social media users, which in turn might trigger social media cravings. The combination of pleasant feelings and cravings makes social media too difficult to resist.

Most likely, that’s because Facebook exposure is a learned response – such as when children learn misbehavior earns them attention or when dogs learn going to the bathroom outside earns them a treat – and learned responses are hard to break, Eden said.

“People are learning this reward feeling when they get to Facebook,” she said. “What we show with this study is that even with something as simple as the Facebook logo, seeing the Facebook wall of a friend or seeing anything associated with Facebook, is enough to bring that positive association back.”

In the first study, participants were exposed to a Facebook-related cue or a control picture, followed by a Chinese symbol. They were then asked to judge whether the symbol was pleasant or unpleasant. After being exposed to a Facebook-inspired image, heavy Facebook users rated the Chinese image as pleasant with greater consistency than less frequent users.

Then, in the second study, participants were given a survey to measure their cravings to use Facebook.

Because of giving in to temptation, people often struggle with feelings of guilt, Eden said. If they try to regulate Facebook usage and fail, they feel badly, so they turn to Facebook and feel badly again. It’s a cycle of self-regulatory failure, she said.

But, Eden says, the guilt is more damaging to the psyche than failing to control the media.

The solution could be to remove some of the cues from people’s environment, like, for example, removing the Facebook logo from a cell phone home screen.

“Media, including social media, is one of the most commonly failed goals to regulate,” Eden said. “People try to regulate themselves and they really have difficulty with it.”

The study is published in the journal Cyberpsychology, Behavior and Social Networking. Co-researchers on the studies are Guido van Koningsbruggen and Tilo Hartmann, both from Vrije Universiteit, and Harm Veling from Radboud University Nijmegen.

Mindfulness Shows Promise as We Age, but Study Results Are Mixed

COLUMBUS, Ohio – As mindfulness practices rise in popularity and evidence of their worth continues to accumulate, those who work with aging populations are looking to use the techniques to boost cognitive, emotional and physiological health.

But studies so far have shown mixed results in the elderly, and more investigation is needed to determine exactly how best to apply mindfulness in that population, a new review of the research to date has found.

A majority of the 27 studies in the review suggest that the focused attention at the core of mindfulness benefits older people, but others don’t point to improvements. And that should prompt more rigorous investigations in search of interventions likely to do the most good, researchers from The Ohio State University found. Their analysis appears in the journal Frontiers in Aging Neuroscience.

“Mindfulness is a practice that really serves as a way to foster a greater quality of life and there’s been some thought that it could help with cognitive decline as we age,” said Stephanie Fountain-Zaragoza, lead author of the study and a graduate student in psychology.

“Given the growing interest in mindfulness in general, we wanted to determine what we know right now so that researchers can think about where we go from here,” she said.

The good news so far: The evidence from a variety of studies points to some benefits for older adults, suggesting that mindfulness training might be integrated into senior centers and group homes, the researchers found.

Older people are an especially important population to study given diminished social support, physical limitations and changes in cognitive health, the researchers point out.

Studies of mindfulness meditation usually involve three types of practices. The first, focused attention, involves sustained attention to a single thing (such as the breath) and an effort to disengage from other distractions.

Open monitoring meditation, often seen as the next step up in mindfulness, includes acknowledging the details of multiple phenomena (sensations, sounds, etc.) without selectively focusing on one of them.

“This includes being open to experiencing thoughts and sensations and emotions and taking them as they come and letting them go,” Fountain-Zaragoza said.

Loving-kindness meditation encourages a universal state of love and compassion toward oneself and others.

“The goal with this is to foster compassionate acceptance,” said senior author Ruchika Shaurya Prakash, director of Ohio State’s clinical neuroscience laboratory and an expert in mindfulness.

In addition to looking at how mindfulness contributed – or did not – to behavioral and cognitive functioning and to psychological wellbeing, some of the research also looked at its potential role in inflammation, which contributes to a variety of diseases.

In all categories of study, including inflammatory processes, Prakash and Fountain-Zaragoza found mixed results.

The hope is that mindfulness could help the elderly preserve attention and capitalize on emotional regulation strategies that naturally improve as we age, Prakash said.

“Around 50 percent of our lives, our minds are wandering and research from Harvard University has shown that the more your mind wanders, the less happy you are,” she said.

“Mindfulness allows you to become aware of that chaotic mind-wandering and provides a safe space to just breathe.”

In older people, mindfulness ideally has the potential to help with cognition, emotion and inflammation, but little research has been done so far and those studies that have been done have had mixed results and scientific limitations.

While most of the studies in the review showed positive results, the field is limited and would benefit greatly from larger randomized controlled trials, Fountain-Zaragoza said.

“We want to really be able to say that we have strong evidence that mindfulness is driving the changes we see,” she said.

A Trust Gap May Hinder Academic Success for Minorities

AUSTIN, Texas — Middle school students of color who lose trust in their teachers due to perceptions of mistreatment from school authorities are less likely to attend college even if they generally had good grades, according to psychology research at The University of Texas at Austin published in the journal Child Development.

Low expectations from teachers and extreme disparities in discipline for misbehavior contribute to the disproportionate mistreatment of African American and Latino youths in schools across the United States, and can lead to a growing mistrust for authority by students who perceive and experience such biases, researchers said.

“When students have lost trust, they may be deprived of the benefits of engaging with an institution, such as positive relationships and access to resources and opportunities for advancement,” said UT Austin assistant professor of psychology David Yeager. “Thus, minority youth may be twice harmed by institutional injustices.”

In their study, Yeager and researchers from UT Austin, Columbia University and Stanford University examined 483 U.S. middle school students’ perceptions of their teachers’ impartiality and how those attitudes related to any disciplinary treatment they received and to the likelihood of on-time enrollment at a four-year college.

Data were drawn from twice-yearly surveys, from sixth grade until college entry, by 277 white and African American middle- and lower-middle-class students in the northeastern U.S., and compared with a one-year study of 206 white and Latino middle schoolers in rural Colorado. Trust was measured based on how students identified with statements such as: “I am treated fairly by my teachers and other adults at my school.”

The researchers found that trust decreased for all students from sixth to eighth grade but declined faster for African American and Latino students than it did for their white peers. Furthermore, students who lost more trust than expected in seventh grade were less likely to fulfill on-time enrollment at a four-year college six years later.

“Prior research shows that people trust an institution more when they perceive that it is procedurally just and that its authorities have personal regard for individuals served by the institution,” Yeager said. In the study, minorities also reported more racial disparities than white students in decisions involving school discipline, with fewer than 55 percent of African American students expecting equal treatment after the first semester of sixth grade.

Official school records indicated that African Americans were disciplined more throughout middle school, particularly in regards to more grey-area incidents involving “defiance” and “disobedience” where African American students outnumbered their white peers nearly 3-to-1. Still, the largest race gap in school discipline was in sixth grade, fueling a perceived bias and predicting future disciplinary incidents, researchers said.

“Perceived bias and mistrust reinforce each other. And like a stone rolling down a hill that triggers an avalanche, the loss of trust could accumulate behavioral consequences over time,” Yeager said. “Seeing and expecting injustice and disrespect, negatively stereotyped ethnic minority adolescents may disengage, defy authorities, underperform and act out.”

To combat this vicious cycle, researchers tested the efficacy of a “wise feedback” intervention on improving students’ trust in a small experimental sub-sample of 88 white and African American seventh-graders. In the experiment, half of the students received critiques and a hand-written note from their teacher on a first-draft essay, stating: “I’m giving you these comments because I have very high expectations, and I know that you can reach them.” While this intervention did not influence white students, African American students had fewer disciplinary incidents the following year (about half) and were 30 percentage points more likely to attend college than those in the control group.

The researchers caution that the one-time note is not an intervention that is designed for wide-scale use, but it highlights that teachers can work more systematically to create a classroom climate that boosts the trust of students who may have to contend with discrimination.

Passion of Parents in Youth Sports

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Parents really love to involve their kids in competitive sports.  Sometimes too much.

Sports is an ingrained part of the American landscape. It is so much a part of our daily lives that most people cannot imagine life without watching or playing on a daily basis.

A passion for sports is instilled in most kids from an early age. In my family, it was not so much. My mother took me out of baseball in kindergarten because the practices were too late at night. From that, my mother later extrapolated that it was somehow her fault that I didn’t become any good at baseball and, therefore, could not make millions of dollars. For her comfort, it can be noted that I never turned out good at any other sport either and made not a single cent as an athlete.

The Anomaly and The Norm

The anomaly of my situation was that my mother didn’t encourage my participation in sports. It is quite normal that parents want their kids participating in sports. They encourage it. Indeed, that translates into a majority of kids participating. A detailed article on data of youth sports, shows that 75% of boys and 69% of girls play.

For a larger estimate, thirty to forty-five million kids are involved in some sport and parents’ push to have their kids involved seems fueled by at least a little bit of grandeur and hope for the future. There are any number of articles already written about the nature of crazed parents pushing their kids to excel on the field.

Sometimes, parents and coaches push kids too far.

While encouragement and praise are natural coaching strategies, and excelling at the craft is mostly the point, there are still a lot of physical and psychological development concerns. Just the right balance needs to be considered from a coaching standpoint. That coaching should probably concern a more diverse life beyond sports, which considers health and well-being.

There are great ambitions that children and elders have and a good deal of growth that comes from athletic experiences. The encouragement is a positive, but the desire and success are the child’s own and can only be measured by their own standards. There is certainly a lot at stake. However, a wise gambler would know that the odds of failure far outweigh the opportunity for success.

My situation was also the norm because no kids are likely to grow up to make any money from sports, much less millions. Even the kids that grow up into excellent athletes also need a lot of fortuitous bounces to get anywhere in the business.

An NCAA chart outlines a picture of the chances that any given child will make it big. To be sure, it’s extremely hard to make it in sports. Most kids that play youth sports never end up playing high school sports. Then, very few high school athletes go on to play in college and very few of those make it professionally.

As the chart shows, with over 1,000,000 participants, football is by far the most common high school sport. Of those, 6.5% go on to play college football. Of those, 1.6% get drafted by an NFL team. For the best odds, baseball and hockey players are considerably better bets to make it to professional ranks than basketball, soccer and football. Still, the chances are pretty miniscule. About half of one percent of high school baseball players get drafted by major league teams. And most draft picks never see a major league field much less a multimillion dollar contract.

What is the cost?

There is a cost to every decision in life, particularly those that don’t pan out into big paydays. So, what are some of those risks?

A portrait of one slice of the American life shows a family who invests most of their time and resources in their kids’ athletics, driving the billion dollar youth sports industry, just for the hope that they become one of the five to ten percent that will go on to play varsity sports. At best, the parents are hopeful their children will learn great lessons from their experiences.

It is certainly true that people learn well from adversity. With only one winner, it would appear there is a lot of adversity in competitive sports. That may be a great learning experience, but are the kids having fun?  In one report, 84% wish they had more fun and 31% wish adults weren’t watching and putting pressure on them. This all seems to lead to the 70% attrition rate.

That’s not even the dark side. The top end of the spectrum isn’t terribly rosy, but what about the opposite end?

About three million children go to the emergency room every year from playing sports. Another five million are treated for minor injuries. So, while it is about a .01% chance any given child will wind up with a decent payday from sports, there is pretty close to a 100% chance they will get hurt.

The emergency room is not a great place to end up for kids in sports.

In October, a NYC teenager died after a collision in a soccer game. Eleven kids died playing high school football in 2015. While death and disability is fairly rare, they are no less than the odds of making it big. Moreover, minor injuries are not exactly minor.  

Concussions are easy to sustain and common among young athletes. They result in poor academic performance, attendance and the overall ability to learn. The younger a person is, the greater the issues surrounding head injuries. Also, the lifetime consequences of chronic pain result in treatments which create an entirely different array of problems, for example juvenile arthritis affects over 300,000 children. The magnitude of a future life of headaches and chiropractic visits is best realized by medical professionals. If nothing else, there are many more jobs created in the medical and insurance fields by more people getting and staying hurt.

There are endless untold complications from playing youth sports that go along with the billions of dollars spent on keeping kids playing.

Hedging Bets

I don’t mean to bash sports. There is no doubt to the growth opportunities. At the same time, I would argue that most of those lessons can be learned in other avenues, but there still is a redeeming value to sports. The idea of victory gives people hope and the execution of a game plan brings excitement.

The concept of sports doesn’t necessarily have to include the traditional big money sports. Light exercise is even better than high energy or contact sports. Combining exercise with academics helps students learn. For healing sake, many sport-like games can take the place of sports. For example, foosball is a great tool used in rehabilitation for injuries.

The point really comes down to, parents need to understand that not everyone can make it big in the same industry already flooded with talent. Moreover, kids take time to develop. Rushing into a sport they are not ready for can only risk injury and hinder development in other age appropriate areas. Somehow, many parents lose sight of the realities and try to live their own lost dreams vicariously through their children’s success.

Kids need to grow up according to their own dreams and desires. Success only comes from a person’s own initiative. It’s a hard balance. The younger start a person gets in life, the better they will typically be at something. On the other hand, it takes time to discover true interests.

Diversity always seems to be the key. The more options a kid has, the better.  

All the evidence in the world suggests kids that play sports have the best chance for success and the least chance for injuries when playing multiple sports. Likewise, a kid’s most well-roundedness will come not from being entirely immersed in sports, but also other outlets. I shudder to think however, what most parents who push their kids in athletics would think of them going into stage acting. The glory and bragging rights just wouldn’t be the same for those parents.

Using Superhero Powers with Clients

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Is it a bird, is it a plane? No, it’s Superhero Therapy!

Not to be mistaken for when superheroes happen to go into therapy, Superhero Therapy is a technique which can be used to support people who are in distress. This technique can be used across models, professions and theoretical orientations. Dr Janina Scarlet’s account of Superhero Therapy’s origins can be found here, and this current article is going to examine the practicalities of how Superhero Therapy might work.

In short, Superhero Therapy involves using a client’s favourite superheroes for support, inspiration, strength and compassion. They do not have to be ‘traditional’ superheroes – other fantasy/sci-fi characters may participate such as Harry Potter, Matilda, and Sabrina the Teenage Witch (or her cat). Many superheroes have flaws and struggles, and they all inevitably get things wrong. They aren’t always sociable, or even likable.

So what are the practicalities of using the Superhero Therapy technique?

Firstly, at face value it is a great way to get to know people without having A Very Serious Discussion About Feelings. Finding out what someone’s interests are is an important and human part of any therapeutic process, and at the same time it can provide valuable information in the context of casual conversation. In this case, the focus would be light information-gathering and relationship building. For example in one touching story, Drax from Guardians of the Galaxy was related to by a young boy diagnosed with autism. These characters can be a way of reaching people.

Secondly, superheroes might be used as a way to externalise a problem. This technique is popular in narrative and social constructionist perspectives of distress. An example could be a person describing their anger as being like The Hulk – unstoppable, the desire to smash. Somebody may feel that they ‘go Gollum’ when the critical voice in their head starts to remind them they are going to fail. Having no boundaries and people-pleasing could be externalised as being like the Genie from Aladdin.

By giving the problem a name and a character, it is separated from a person’s sense of self. This supports people toe to develop a different and less blaming relationship with distress. To do this, a therapist might spent lots of time fleshing out the character with all five senses. They would keep drawing parallels between the character and the experience of distress.

Cognitive Analytic Therapy and psychodynamic approaches might use creative techniques to delve into unconscious processes. One might look for what the superhero represents, e.g. being strong or clever or popular – perhaps it is an unmet need? Links may be made between the superhero and actual/idealised caregivers, and whether the superheroes represent people who already exist in the client’s life.

The superhero could represent the client, or somebody they wish they were. What is that draws the person to the character, what stories about the superhero stand out? (e.g. stories of triumph, or loss, or conflict). Additionally, the person’s relationship to the superhero is important – is it one of admiration, sexual desire, envy?

Superhero stories might also be used as part of Cognitive Behavioural approaches. Cognitive Behavioural approaches often focus on one’s thinking patterns, and how they can colour one’s life. Examples include ‘all or nothing’ thinking (e.g. ‘you come first or you’ve failed’) and  generalising (‘I ALWAYS get it wrong’). Superheroes could be used to evaluate such patters (e.g. if panic attacks mean you’re not strong, does that mean Iron Man isn’t strong? Would The Doctor be a bad person if he gave up his guilt? Does Storm always forget about her past and ‘move on’?).

Finally, superheroes can be a resource for ideas and inspiration. How did they get out of some tricky situations? What were the pros and cons, and who helped them? Sometimes in therapy, a client might be asked what their friend would say to them (e.g. “Would your friend call you stupid and useless?”). But some people have few to no positive relationships in their life, and superheroes might be another way to source creative ideas (“What would Lara Croft say about facing your fears?” or “What did Jean-Luc Picard do when he was stuck?”).

One could also source some personal experiments from superheroes (“Imagine you’re in the Triwizard Tournament and your next challenge is to go to a social gathering…”), or ideas for how to care for themselves (“What would you need to survive the Hunger Games?”), or even some life philosophies (“You’ve already made the choice, now you have to understand it” – The Oracle, The Matrix). A client could read a section of a comic or film script aloud with a therapist, to get a feel of what it’s like to be that superhero. They may create subtle gestures to release their powers as Spiderman releases his web. The possibilities are many.

However, no superhero is flawless, and neither is Superhero Therapy. Having a fun topic that both therapist and client can share may be useful and validating. However, assuming shared knowledge could be detrimental if the therapist doesn’t remain curious and exploratory. A mere mention of certain characters might bring up certain things for different people – Poison Ivy is one person’s sexual object, but another person’s environmental activist or powerful scientist. As such, and given the excitement and wonder of the superhero world, it’s important that the therapist not get too caught up in the magic and their own memories or interests.

On the flip side, the therapist may never have heard of the client’s superhero. This may be particularly regarding minority ethnicities, women, and LGBT+ (minority gender and sexuality), whose superheroes may not yet be as mainstream as the likes of Iron Man, John Connor, Flash Gordon, James Bond, Kickass, Hercules, Batman, Thor, Daredevil, Neo, Superman, Marty McFly, Green Lantern, Sherlock Holmes, Dr Who, Spiderman, Dr Manhattan, Indiana Jones, Luke Skywalker, and so on.

Of course, not all superheroes are straight white males, and having the client describe their superhero if the therapist is unfamiliar is actually a great opportunity. The danger would simply be assuming a narrow range of what ‘superhero’ might mean to someone, especially when describing superhero therapy to the client. A therapist should at least be aware of a range of examples of what ‘superhero’ could be, if only to support the client to think about who their heroes are and why (some clients would of course need no prompting!).

These issues link directly into wider conversations about social justice at large – for example, the representation of certain groups of people such as the ‘crazy’, females, effeminate men, ‘criminals’, and those who are not white. Superhero Therapy is affected by the problems or puzzles that naturally fall into the helping, social domain. By dint of being part of our culture, superheroes reflect the real world in which they are born.

It’s possible that the application of Superhero Therapy is an invitation for more of us to be superheroes, to be empowered, to find out what it is that we are good at and where we fit. A common theme of superhero stories is that of the civilian population having solidarity and compassion for each other (albeit usually in defiance against an evil tyrant.. is that too far from reality?). Even villains are usually not ‘all bad’ and some of them try to solve social problems, albeit in a morally questionable manner (e.g. Magneto, the aforementioned Poison Ivy).

In conclusion, the practicalities of the Superhero Therapy technique are diverse and worth pondering. The concept of Superhero Therapy is naturally flexible, but the process still requires the personal touch of understanding the client (and it cannot be assumed that every geeky client will connect with superhero therapy). It combines general everyday interests with deep-set beliefs, hurts and vulnerabilities, and can be a powerful tool. However, as any therapist or support worker should know, with great power comes great responsibility. That responsibility extends right out into societal, social justice. It is up to the practitioner to avoid treating this like a surface-level and superficial task, and to truly explore its potential.

Microaggressions and Trigger Warnings Are Being Deemed Liberal Views Limiting College Students

PreCollegeProgramLL

After reading the article Coddling of the American Mind in the Atlantic, I felt compelled to pen a response. The article suggests that ‘liberal’ views about use of language, ‘trigger warnings’, microaggressions, and avoiding offensive language are damaging to university students’ academic progression and their emotional wellbeing. The discussion here will be in several parts, the first part considers the article’s origins and underlying assumptions.

The article is a worthwhile read after taking into consideration the initial response it elicits. There are references to evidenced based therapies such as Cognitive Behaviour Therapy (CBT), and many examples were given to support their points. Here is an excerpt:

Two terms have risen quickly from obscurity into common campus parlance. Microaggressions are small actions or word choices that seem on their face to have no malicious intent but that are thought of as a kind of violence nonetheless. For example, by some campus guidelines, it is a microaggression to ask an Asian American or Latino American “Where were you born?,” because this implies that he or she is not a real American. Trigger warnings are alerts that professors are expected to issue if something in a course might cause a strong emotional response. For example, some students have called for warnings that Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart describes racial violence and that F. Scott Fitzgerald’sThe Great Gatsby portrays misogyny and physical abuse, so that students who have been previously victimized by racism or domestic violence can choose to avoid these works, which they believe might “trigger” a recurrence of past trauma.

The people who wrote this article are rich, white-skinned and well-established men, who work at the moment in business-type jobs. Jonathan Haidt has an incredible list of credentials, including top American universities, a Fulbright scholarship, and a long string of psychological research initiatives – ending in an evolutionary-based model of morality, which suggests that political conservatives have a wider moral base than political liberals. One foundation of Haidt’s theory of morality includes ‘respect for traditions’ and ‘deference to legitimate authority’. A simple reading doesn’t make clear whose authority should be counted as legitimate.

Greg Lukianoff is a “First Amendment lawyer” who spends his time purporting the right to free speech. He describes himself as politically liberal and has written books about unlearning liberty and how to have free speech on university campuses. In 2008, he received the Playboy Freedom of Expression Award ($25,000 for advocates of the First Amendment) and has written for a whole host of well-known media outlets.

The text itself begins with an anecdote about anecdotes. In other words, Haidt and Lukianoff reference an article about teaching rape law, which provides examples of college students being ‘oversensitive’. This includes students who ‘complained’ there should have been a warning before showing a video of a sex abuse investigation in class, and a student who asked, for personal reasons, that rape not be included on exam material. Following this, they provide a list of names of people who apparently agree with them. This includes an article by a ‘liberal professor’ who states he is scared of oversensitive students, which was actually later contested by a ‘liberal professor’ via the same media source, and even later contested by second professor, again via the same media source.

This tactic arguably places the authors in an apparently popular and reasonable position as stated by this professor. It’s presenting them as people who say what needs to be said in a dark era of closing down reasonable discussion due to ‘offence’. They include teachers, liberals, a woman, a black comedian and a white comedian. It fits well with current Western political rhetoric, especially in Britain and America. After all, ‘political correctness’ is no longer considered a synonym for ‘respect’ but for unnecessary censorship. And they use broad anecdotes to support this.

Another broad brush the authors use is the term ‘microaggressions’.  Dr. Derald Wing Sue in his book, Microaggressions in Everyday Life, gives a great overview of what they are, and how they affect different demographics. In essence, microaggressions reveal our unconscious biases and assumptions – if you’re interested, you can find out about some of your unconscious prejudices here. Because Western society frowns upon, and legislates against, actively hateful discrimination and incentives to violence, people tend to avoid overt demonstrations of prejudice. Prejudice is expressed more subtly, i.e. with microaggressions.

There is plenty of literature about how microaggressions are insidious and inherently damaging to wellbeing – the idea was conceived by Chester Pierce in the 1970’s and it was further developed in the 1990’s. This is not a term that has suddenly started to be bandied about on college campuses. It’s been present in literature for a while, and finally this literature is filtering to the public. One of the implicit messages present in Haidt and Lukianoff’s argument is that microaggressions are a newfangled pop-culture concept with little inherent value – “risen quickly from obscurity into common campus parlance (read: where it does not belong)”.

Coupled with this, they obscure the meaning of ‘microaggression’. The crux of Haidt and Lukianoff’s argument is that they appear to consider each microaggression as an individual event. And, of course, when you take something so small as an individual event, and totally out of context, it looks silly. But empirically, that is not how microaggressions are meant to be considered – it’s the aggregate of thousands of microaggressions throughout a person’s lifetime that makes them damaging. Actions deemed as microaggressions have no power by themselves. Think about a bee. A single bee sting does just that – it stings, it hurts. But overall there’s not much damage. The entire hive going after you at once, however, can kill. There’s a special word for this – synecdoche, where a small part of something symbolises the whole.

So, Haidt and Lukianoff ignore the context of why microaggressions are so dangerous: 1) Because they are present everywhere, all the time, and they steadily wear people down, 2) Each individual instance is so small it can be dismissed, which 3) Makes the less privileged person seem over-reactive to small misdemeanours, and therefore 4) Means nobody has to do anything about it.

Crucially, they pretend ‘microaggression’ is a monolithic term. They ignore the range of different ways microaggressions can present themselves – including using an identity as an insult (“don’t act like a girl”, “that’s so gay”), and assuming white male straightness is default (after all, gay marriage is just marriage, women’s football is just football). They ignore a huge power of microaggressions – that of erasure.

There is literally ‘nothing’ to complain about when mixed gender groups are called ‘guys’ not ‘girls’, when bisexuals are absent from discussions on the ‘gay agenda’, people are surprised when the boss is black, and when Asian women basically don’t speak in modern Western media. Indeed, it’s considered rude to reject well-meaning attempts to assimilate a person into the norm (“You don’t act gay” as a compliment, “I’m colourblind”, or “We’re all the same, gender doesn’t matter to me”).

Ironically, Haidt and Lukianoff don’t mention erasure as a microaggression at all in their discussion. They instead appear to condense all possible infractions against a minority/oppressed group as ‘offence’ at something. Even though they explicitly mention the phrase ‘I’m colourblind’ as part of an anecdote they don’t seem to pick up on what it means. And it’s on this reductionist basis they build much of the rest of the article. Whilst every point they make will not be looked at, it is worth thinking of an example they provide: “It is a microaggression to ask an Asian American or Latino American “Where were you born?”.

Of course asking an Asian-American where they were born isn’t an inherent microaggression. Haidt and Lukianoff don’t provide a reference to ‘some campus guidelines’ which have stated this. If people are talking about having been born in a different place to where they now live, then it’s not unheard of to ask about birthplace. That said, usually one would ask where people are from, not where they were ‘born’.

Either way, it’s not always microaggressive – it’s about context. If a person has only just met someone, or doesn’t know them too well, birthplace is generally not top of conversation topics. Haidt and Lukianoff’s assumption is that it’s not the university’s blanket and over-simplified definition of microaggression that’s the problem; they assume that the acknowledgement of microaggressions is in of itself is problematic.

They follow up with some additional isolated examples of microaggressions-gone-wild, coupled with the term “some recent campus actions”. Then they state: “This new climate is slowly being institutionalized, and is affecting what can be said in the classroom, even as a basis for discussion”. Perhaps this assumes that students aren’t already institutionalised and that the system as it was should be preserved. From this, it seems one of their  assumptions is that the system was better before students started speaking out about these issues i.e. the authors want to “restor[e] universities to their historic mission”.

There also seems to be an undercurrent of “we are rational and logical” versus “the oppressed (read: offended by microaggressions) are emotional” – the nuances of this will be addressed later as part of a discussion about ‘psychological harm’, ‘emotional wellbeing’ and ‘safe spaces’. It seems interesting that whilst the authors place themselves in this rational and non-emotional position, they deliberately coin the strongly-worded term vindictive protectiveness, which means ‘punishing people’ who interfere with the (admittedly atrocious) aim of ‘protecting students from psychological harm’. This is possibly a touch.. catastrophising, as CBT therapists might say.

Additional catastrophising themes include punishment and charges towards innocent victims (people who get called up on microaggressions). This is in spite of their earlier assertion that students should get themselves used to “words and ideas that they will inevitably encounter”, such as, for example, the idea that microaggressions exist and are damaging. Linguistically, microaggressions have now been reduced to words and ideas rather than oppressive actions, and also put on a par with common intellectual debate and discussion, which allows Haidt and Lukianoff to treat them as though they are the same thing.

This is something to bear in mind, as future posts will consider the content of their article, beyond some of its basic assumptions. To finish this particular analysis, readers will be left with one very telling quote about what the problem with microaggressions appears to be: “It is creating a culture in which everyone must think twice before speaking up, lest they face charges of insensitivity, aggression, or worse.”

So, to be clear, they are concerned about having to think before they speak.

As in, having to consider other people’s reaction to their words.

Otherwise one might get.. criticised.

But Haidt and Lukianoff aren’t being oversensitive, of course.

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