There is so much pressure that kids experience. The pandemic, social media, and other factors increase the rates of kids having mental health issues. In this episode, Dr. Jason Kahn, Chief Science Officer and co-founder of Mightier, delves into the tools to help build emotional regulation in children. He sees video games help children to learn to handle their emotions and overcome behavioral challenges. He also provides his piece in augmented reality and virtual reality and where it fits in the mental health challenges we face. Dr. Kahn shares some pieces of objective evidence which support early intervention makes a huge difference around neurodevelopmental disorders. There is so much wisdom to unpack today to help our children regulate their emotions with Dr. Jason Kahn today!

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The Future Of Emotional Regulation In Children – A Conversation With Dr. Jason Kahn

In this episode, we have Dr. Jason Kahn, PhD in Developmental Psychology, who is doing a lot of cool stuff in the intersection between mental health with children and video games. Video games are something that I particularly like. I’m a big gamer myself. Dr. Khan is the Chief Science Officer at Mightier. He’s been testing and putting out a lot of cool products that have helped a lot of children. Jason, why don’t you tell us a little bit about what you’re doing at Mightier, how you got to this space, and what the future holds for us?

First, thanks for having me here. I’m excited to talk with you and talk with the audience. I have always been inspired by how well kids are learning through play. It’s this idea that play can be a positive change agent for kids across any manner of growth. I wanted to bring that insight into the field of mental health. I grew up playing video games. I felt like I learned a lot playing video games. It felt to me like that was such a powerful way to learn, and that we could start making positive impacts in kids’ lives.

That’s what led to Mightier. It’s this idea that video games can be part of the solution on two levels. If you think of one kid and the type of challenges they’re facing, we can have a profound impact on their life. If you think of all the kids out there, a lot of people don’t know, but it is very hard to get access to mental healthcare right now. Being able to take something as both commonplace but powerful as video games and take that thing that we all sometimes think about as a societal problem and turn that into a solution for everyone and solve this access crisis that we have going on through video games. Also, it feels good.

I think that video games are something that has not been tapped into as an educational source. People have tried to do it, but they haven’t succeeded in it. One of the things that I like about what you guys are doing is I’ve seen a lot of your reviews and everything like that. It seems like the kids are enjoying it. What do you feel is different with your approach versus some of the other things? I remember when I was younger, there was this Nintendo game that was trying to teach. I played it for five minutes and was so over it. I know that the kids that you guys are tracking are spending a lot of time on these games. What are some of the things that you’ve done differently compared to the past?

There are a couple of key factors in our approach. One of the most important ones is we take kids seriously. We understand that in order for a kid to enjoy an experience, you have to treat them like a kid, and you have to treat them with your full respect. That means living in their world and that means letting them play. I remember playing a lot of games as a kid and they were “educational games,” but the idea that comes out there is chocolate-covered broccoli. It’s like, “Let me teach you how to type but it’s just the thinness of game layers over a typing exercise. “Let me teach you math,” but they’re flashcards with a little game on top of it.

FSP - DFY 17 | Emotional Regulation In Children

Kids see through that so fast. Kids don’t want to be doing that. The way to think about what we do is something more along the lines of playing with something like Lego or something like that. As a kid, you want to feel like you have a sense of creativity, a sense of agency, like some real impact on your skill, some real growth, and that there is not some adult behind the screen who is trying to tell you what to do.

For a kid to enjoy an experience, you have to treat them like a kid and treat them with your full respect. That means living in their world, and that means letting them play.

Our approach embraces that. We specifically teach this skill called emotional regulation, and I can talk about that in a bit, but it tells a kid that they are the ones who are in charge of their emotional regulation. There’s no right way. There’s no adult who can come in and be like, “Here’s the right way to do things.” It’s something that the kid gets to figure out all for themselves, and something that they can be expressive and creative about.

I wanted to touch on emotional regulation for a second. It’s something that we hear a lot more about now. Things like anxiety and any sort of mental health support like ADHD. Zooming out from emotional regulations, there are mental health disorders. Do you see more prevalence of that now as opposed to in the past? Is that a true value or is it just more diagnosis that’s happening? Is there more insight into it now?

That’s a good topic. Especially when we talk about the future of mental health, I think it becomes very important. One of the things in medicine that we’ve got very good at over the past 20 to 30 years is we’ve been better at recognizing diagnoses, which has been good. One of the things to remember about mental health and brain science, in general, is we’re still at the beginning. As more neurosciences come to the fore, we realize that when we think about diagnoses, we’re describing a set of symptoms and a set of patterns, but they’re not always descriptive and they’re not always predictable.

What happened in the past is that we would label a child with ADHD or anxiety, and then that would prescribe a certain set of interventions, some meds, and some therapy. Sometimes they would work and sometimes they wouldn’t. When they work, they’re powerful, meds included. We weren’t always great at description. Those diagnostic descriptions still don’t always work. The follow-on as we’ve learned more about the brain has been to describe a little bit more about the systems of the brain and how their growth and development can impact a child’s mental health.

The regulatory system, especially the emotional regulatory system, is one of those systems. You can think about that like in a fight or flight reflex. The old example of you see a tiger, and your brain has to decide to fight, fight, or freeze. That’s a neurological response that is adaptive and designed, but if you take that into the modern world, there’s a social impact of that. Having a large response too is some sort of social stressor where those three responses might not be appropriate, so you have to regulate. We’ve got good at describing what those systems look like and what those paths look like.

Emotional regulation is this set of neurological tools that sit in everybody’s brain. Everybody can do emotional regulation. It develops. If it develops in one set of directions, then maybe people have strong reactions in social situations. You can think of the star athletes of the world who are so good at this. Nothing gets to them. Also, you can think of other people potentially like you or me who are forced to go into any sort of novel social situation. They either freeze or they get nervous or they act angrily. They look back at that situation like, “Why did I do that?” What we’ve learned is kids with ADHD, kids with anxiety, and even kids with autism, their emotional regulation systems are not necessarily as strong as other kids. It becomes very beneficial to build that system up.

Building interventions to target those systems has become a new way of thinking about treatment. I think we’re still at the beginning of this, but we’ll become very powerful over the next years. I don’t know. Mental health and medicine, in general, can be slow, but I’m looking forward to 10 to 20 years, we’re going to learn a whole lot about the brain and the systems underneath it. Anyway, it’s a roundabout way of saying emotional regulation is vitally important for everyone. Everybody needs this system and everybody’s system is at a different place, and that’s okay because we can all make it stronger.

Emotional regulation is vitally important for everyone. Everybody needs this emotional regulation system. Everybody’s system is at a different place, and that’s okay because we can all make it stronger.

Do you feel like there are more mental health issues now than there were in the past? The reason why I’m asking that question is because I feel like there is, but I don’t know if that’s a subjective experience because there’s more awareness about it.

I think both are true. There’s more subjective awareness about it and we are better at diagnosing now. We are more attuned to the signs and symptoms in kids, and we’re better able to identify those early interventions in place, which is going to lead to increasing diagnosis rates. We are being better attuned means that we are going to see this more often and we’re going to respond to it. I do think there are other sides to that. I do think that it’s not just we’re better at naming now.

Obviously, we’re coming out of the pandemic. The pandemic was so stressful for a lot of kids. We know that the impact of removing various social structures from a kid’s day-to-day life, especially in school has an impact on their development, and it can lead to things like anxiety and depression. We’ve been able to see that unfold. We also know that various pressures of childhood now socially look different. That’s not to impose a value judgment one way or another. Anybody is free to do that however you see. Growing up in the current academic environment has different pressures on kids. Growing up with social media, especially as a teenager has different pressures on it. There are good parts and bad parts, but it’s just different.

When I look at all of this, it’s tough for me to parse out the subjective data versus the objective data. One of the things that I think is objective is that teenage suicide rates have increased significantly. A lot of the blame is on social media, which is appropriate. I think that the technology that was put out there into the world, we didn’t know what repercussions of that were. Now, there’s a lot of awareness about it but objectively, the rates are increasing. Whether the awareness is more or the diagnosis is more, we just know that this is happening more often.

I feel like it is more of an issue. A lot of people’s concerns are that technology is a driver for a lot of these mental health issues. It’s personally something that I like seeing people like you that are using technology for the benefit of some of these societal ills. That’s why I get so hopeful about the future because technology is a tool. It can be used for good and it can be used for bad. For whatever reason, the first iteration is always about getting the most dollars out of whatever user that you can.

Now that we have enough awareness about the negative effects of it, now there are people like yourself, regulation, and different things that are happening that are scaling back. I do think that we haven’t found that happy medium of making something beneficial and for it to be something that is good for capital. That’s something that I hope that things like video games would veer more in that direction. Irrespective of that, the experience of video games is powerful. I can remember, there are lots of video game experiences that have shaped me as a person. I remember beating The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time. It was such a big accomplishment for me, and I felt so proud of myself even though it was a game.

I want my daughter to have that. I want your kids to have that. I don’t know if those things are available. Let me get back to what Mightier is doing. You guys have a heart rate monitor that when somebody’s heart rate gets too high because they’re getting into that fight or flight since you teach them to calm themselves down. What are the tools? Is it deep breathing? What are the emotional regulation tools that are being taught to children through your app?

To jump to the end, for every kid or every person, what works for you is the best tool. One of the things that Mightier works is you play video games with a heart rate monitor that can see that emotional response in you to a video game. What happens at that moment is the video game gets harder. This is a little backward for every adult, but let’s walk through it. We can walk through it with the Zelda example because you love playing Zelda. I still play Zelda. It would be as if you’re playing Ocarina of Time. You’re in the middle of a boss fight. Your body is reacting to that boss fight, and your health starts to deplete because of your reaction. That would be the Mightier example of playing Zelda.

What happens is that for a kid, they all of a sudden are aware that their body is now part of the game. Their emotions are now part of the game. Rather than having that, that now becomes part of where they have control. Rather than this thing that you don’t have control over, all of a sudden, you do have control over it. This is exactly what we call inside of Mightier. You can pull yourself down and you get back to this place where you are in more of an optimal space. In that experience, that happens over and over again, and you practice over and over again pulling yourself down. You see it on the screen. You see the impact. You get a reward for pulling yourself down.

That set of practice or that moment of practice that happens hundreds if not thousands of times in Mightier, what happens is it becomes automatic for kids. Remember, we talked about emotional regulation as neural circuitry. You practice neural circuitry and it becomes more automatic over time. It’s nice. The brain works like muscles in that way. We’ve seen this through scientific trials, qualitative evidence, and anecdotes from our families. Kids take this skill that they learn inside Mightier. It becomes part of who they are and they take it outside. They take it to their school. They take it to their families. They take it to the soccer field, or wherever the kids are. That’s the heart of learning inside Mightier.

For kids who need extra support, we don’t tell kids how to regulate because there’s no one right way. That’s part of expecting kids to and treating kids as if they do have agency. They are smart and they can figure things out. We do give them some support. We give them skills like deep breathing. We give them skills like progressive muscle relaxation. There are a couple of others inside Mightier, so they can get started.

This is very cool. We’re in the process of preparing a paper. It hasn’t gone through peer review yet, but it looks like we have some data that suggests implicit learning. That part where you’re figuring it out by yourself is where the magic is happening, which is cool. That’s what we expect out of kids. That’s what we’ve seen over and over again in both classical and modern developmental science literature.

It’s also the real world too. If I’m in surgery and I’m pissed off about something, that is going to make my outcome less effective than if I was calm. If I have the ability to emotionally regulate, that’s something that would lead to better outcomes. My sister is also a physician. She sent me an article that recently came out that surgeons have worse outcomes on their birthdays. If you’re thinking about other things or if you’re trying to rush, then the outcomes are worse. There are a lot of real-world outcomes that would benefit from what you’re trying to teach kids through implicit learning.

FSP - DFY 17 | Emotional Regulation In Children

I also think that’s the goal of therapy. When I’m talking with a therapist, they’re questioning my own perspective so that I come to that conclusion by myself. It’s not quite the same, but I feel like it’s similar enough that those breakthroughs that I’ve had in therapy, I can see that happening with kids as well. What is the data showing in regards to the effectiveness of something like you, versus cognitive behavioral therapy, medications, or some of these other tried and true methods for mental health issues that we’ve seen in the past?

I started my career in Academic Medicine in the Department of Psychiatry. The effect sizes per medication, when we get the diagnosis right, are very large. Effect size is basically how much of an impact. Think about it as a practical impact. One of the challenges with the diagnostic model, as it exists now, is that sometimes, and I’ve personally gone through this with our child. The process of finding the right medication can be very difficult. We get diagnoses wrong because mental health is in its infancy. When a med works, it can work for a family.

The impact of Mightier is actually on par with medications. Maybe slightly less, but it is in the same neighborhood. CBT is one of those things where for the right kid at the right time, when it works, it works and the effect size can be quite large. The biggest challenge we have with CBT in the community is it’s hard. There are a couple of things. First of all, you need experts to deliver CBT. There are not enough experts. The waitlist in academic hospitals is in the hundreds if not thousands these days. It’s a long time to get in to see an expert.

What then happens unfortunately is that we often lose kids quickly because unfortunately, it’s a burden. Telehealth makes this a little better, but you have to come in, the kid has to like their therapist because building that relationship is important. Unfortunately, these are people who look like you and me. It’s hard for us to relate to ten-year-olds. Kids get bored, and then the parent has to weigh, “Is it worth the fight to drive my kid in and get a tea or subway here in Boston?” That sometimes works.

Burnout is real, especially with kids.

It’s hard to get kids into therapy and it’s hard to keep kids into therapy. It is phenomenally impactful. Therapists are amazing at their jobs. Their jobs are hard and it’s reflected in the numbers. We’re losing therapists faster than we’re bringing them into the workforce. Honestly, especially within the conversations that you’re inspiring us to have, our future is digital tools augmenting therapy. That is our future. We’re not going to be able to deliver therapy at the scale it’s needed. In the one-to-one context, we have to figure that out.

I hope that we can improve access to care at a quality that is consistent with the actual human therapist. Honestly, after everything that I’ve experienced with ChatGPT, I feel like we’re not far away from that. I just don’t know how effective is that going to be in comparison to a human therapist. I want to switch gears here for a second. Specifically with video games and education, how do you feel about all of the new augmented reality and virtual reality that’s coming down the pipeline? Do you feel like that’s going to be a benefit for this space? What gets you most excited about the technological breakthroughs that are happening?

I do like the augmented and virtual reality pieces. Even the generative AI piece, I’m pretty excited by it. It’s interesting. I don’t think of the specifics of the tool so much as I think about how we’re learning about the brain. The way I think about it is that both on the pharma side and the therapy side, we’ve gotten very good at using the tools we’ve got. As we learn more about how the brain works, we’re going to open up new mechanisms of interventions that have not been thought of yet. Mightier isn’t the best but hopefully, there are hundreds or thousands more of these things.

The rapid piece that we’re learning about how the brain works combined with these new technologies coming to market. Things like generative AI or things like AI are going to let us be creative about approaching how the brain works and how we think about interventions. The ideas that come through in something like talk therapy or CBT are very powerful, but it’s just one modality. Just like pharma is a modality. Biofeedback is another modality. We need more modalities. We need ways that can be delivered digitally. We need to get back. We’re going to get better at describing the specific challenges that are unique to an individual.

Let us be creative about approaching how the brain works and how we think about interventions.

We’re going to get better at making mental health more personalized, building the specific strengths that a person needs, and then choosing the right modality for them. Maybe it’s talk therapy. Maybe it’s some experience in VR that we can’t think of right now. Maybe it’s something in AR. Maybe that can help you through some social situations. Maybe it’s targeted neuro-rehab-ish things that happened with Mightier. We don’t know. I cannot emphasize how much of a pioneer we are right now there, and even people who live in this space like me, how little we know.

Touching on that for a second. Are there any specific breakthroughs that the layperson might not know when you’re talking about how the brain works that excite you? For example, when I look at how my kid is developing right now, I look at it as this is a plant that I’m adding a little bit of water to and I’m adding a little bit of sunlight to. The fertilizer that we have of technology is going through rapid amounts of change. My child will have access to ways to improve their brain and their mental health with things that I didn’t know about.

She’s going to have video games that are able to help with their mental health. She might have augmented reality that could help her with not only her emotional regulation but maybe her concentration or maybe her grit. All of these different aspects of our brain and personality that we might not know how to work yet or how to augment yet, but we might know in the next ten years and also have a modality to help affect change in that. Regardless, that’s all my speculation. You’re in the field. Is there anything that we know about how the brain works now that’s coming down the pipeline that you’re excited about?

There are a couple of spaces emphasizing it. Even though I do spend my time here, you’re in academics too. You end up with a very detailed sliver of knowledge. Sometimes it’s hard to break out, but for me academically, I take a lot of inspiration from how much we’re learning about how the brain is connected and how the various systems of the brain work together. That specifically comes out in our work on emotional regulation. That becomes a direct outcome because we’ve been able to learn that the part of the brain that is responsible for the generation of emotions is connected to a different part of the brain, which is responsible for the regulation.

That part of the regulation is something like practicing. You can expose kids to that and strengthen that connection over time. That type of neuroscience continues to be built. That’s specifically working at connectivity with the brain. That work is continuing and developing faster than anyone can keep up with. It is amazing how much we’re learning about how humans and how brains work right now. There is another piece that makes me excited that is a little less well-known, but there’s this mathematical representation of learning called dynamic systems theory. It’s macro and it’s esoteric, but I’m super glad we got here because I don’t usually get to talk about it. It’s my extreme nerdiness.

I love deep dives into this stuff. That’s great.

The idea is that you end up in this place where your brain becomes stable and comfortable in certain patterns. The way this gets described in a lace space is let’s say you have a salt shaker and you put it in the same place every day, every single time. When you move it, where’s the first place you’re going to look? The same old place. Even if you’re the one who moved it, you’re still going to look at the old place. These patterns become stable. It turns out you can describe behavior in the same way. When you start doing that, you start ending up with these ideas of, “If we think about this as a system, how can we approach that stability that has been generated? How can we intervene in ways that may be disrupting that stability will be beneficial?”

Something like regulation where we have a maladaptive response is getting angry or yelling or throwing or hitting, something like Mightier as a response. How do you build new stability? How do you build something that is more adaptive and feels like reducing a brain to a system, but the system is happier and more stable when it takes a more regulated approach? How can we encourage that? You can play forward in ways like I don’t understand and don’t have answers to.

We can think about other disorders or diagnoses as stability too. Brains have somehow become stable in an anxious or depressed state. Other ways to think about what interventions might put the brain in a different way of being stable. There are things that I think about. There are things that I also don’t want to pretend I have anything resembling the answers for.

I think that is a cool topic that I want to dive into for a second. When I think of a thought-shaker analogy, kids are more plastic in their ability to change their behaviors. Is that correct?


If we intervene earlier, hopefully, the thought is that they’ll gain skills that are more adaptive and they’re able to outgrow their anxiety or outgrow their ADHD or something like that. Is there any evidence of that? Is that just my feeling or is there objective evidence that if we intervene earlier, then those interventions are much more effective than when a person is older?

There are mountains of objective evidence that early intervention makes a massive difference across any number of neurodevelopmental disorders. Autism has been studied hugely. We know the earlier we intervene in autism, we can have better outcomes for that kid later in life. As I said, we reacted to that. We’ve put screening in place. We’ve been able to catch it earlier. I think we’re doing a lot of good.

Even things more on the educational side. You think about something like dyslexia. We’ve done a massive amount of work to understand a lot of the neurological underpinnings of something like dyslexia. Because of that, the education world is doing this massive fundamental shift in how they approach reading education. It is a direct response to our neurological understanding of how the brain works.

What is the shift? Can you explain that to me?

It’s a little adjacent to my field. Actually, Maryanne Wolf did this analysis of how the brain organizes. Dyslexia has challenges in how the brain organizes sounds and visual input and puts it together into language. Continuing on this massive oversimplification, we know in that case that direct phonics instruction early leads to better reading outcomes for all kids. There’s been a push in education. It’s not my direct field, but there’s been a push in reading education to change that approach.

That’s all spilled out into the news at this point. There are all these pop-eye and even mainstream media articles on how we’re approaching education, especially education of reading. It’s a nice example of how a massively evolving understanding of how the brain works is leading to hopefully better outcomes for everyone including kids with dyslexia, but across the board.

I feel like and I have hope that with the examples that you have talked about that we should be shifting our focus to developmental psychology. If we can intervene early, then those outcomes are going to be better. That’s the case across the board with medicine period. In the 20th century, we were very focused on what I call sick care, which is end-of-the-road intervention. This person already has diabetes, we just need to make it better. Now, I feel like in the 21st century, there’s a lot more focus on preventing these things before they even happen. That is filled out into the public consciousness. People like me who are not in your field look at these things and say, “We need to intervene early.”

I hope that trend continues, but I think it will. That technology will be a huge tool that we use to give people the help that they need in an earlier space. Hopefully, that will lead to a more well-balanced society. I wanted to talk about the way that we emotionally regulate for a few minutes. That’s something that’s particular importance to me because I have a kid who’s almost two years old now. When are you intervening in children and trying to get them to the point where they are able to emotionally regulate themselves? Your app, what is the age group for that? Is that something that you’re intervening in when they’re able to talk and have a conversation? As a parent, when should I be focusing on their emotional well-being?

Our app works for kids. We work from 6 to 14. Hitting kids as early as possible is important. Unsurprising, there’s a deep dive here for practical parenting advice. There’s more to the story. Kids build regulation from birth, so you see this idea of co-regulation starting. When you’re born, you rely on your external environment completely to help you with regulation. Crying is usually a response to a need. You’re hungry or tired. The idea of co-regulation is that you are depending on the external world to regulate for you or with you. Kids develop regulations as they go.

There is a critical period around the prefrontal cortex where you start to see myelination through there. It means that more of the brain is available to the kid. You start to see more independence in the regulatory skill through then, and then developing. You don’t see that system or pathway and it’s like full capacity until the end of adolescence, which for boys is like 24. It’s pretty late. It’s not what we think of as the 18-year-old kid.

Throughout that entire period, the capacity for change is enormous. How we approach change looks different throughout that entire period, but our capacity for change is enormous. Even after, like once we hit adulthood, our brains are never fixed in place. Our brains are constantly changing and adapting. You can continue to see change. Our tools look different, and that’s where more of the cognitive tools start to take play or take hold. Things like CBT become powerful.

I know you’re a dad yourself. What are some interventions that you’re doing to make sure that your kids are well-developed and achieving their best potential?

That’s a great question. We’re a strong believer in balance in everything. Starting with the things that parents get most nervous about, our kids get screen time, our kids get plenty of video games, and they get to watch TV. We’ve tried to put structures in place around them where they can even self-manage. It’s like some sense of there are lots of choices available to you. What is the thing that is going to make you happy at this moment? Is it going to be the screen? Is it going to be playing with toys? Is it going to be going outside? We do encourage an awful lot of outside time with our kids.

Personally, our kids, they’ve taken to sports. Both of them have. We have encouraged that. Multiple sports, especially for our oldest, soccer have become his primary thing, but we’re encouraging anything that he can find and enjoy. Academics, reading, or other kids find a lot of value in music. Making the introduction available and making music a choice, even if for them, it’s not their specific thing. For all of these things, there’s a physician at Boston Children’s Hospital who talks about a screen time diet and being intentional with everything. It’s been something that we’ve tried to embrace.

Is screen time that bad? Is it objectively bad? I feel like if everybody’s doing it right, and I know from my cohort of parents that I hang out with, it’s a necessary evil in their lives. I don’t even consider it to be evil, to be honest.

I don’t think it’s evil. I worry the most about when kids get no screen time. We live in a world where screens are a reality. At some point, every single child is going to have to interact with screens. To be honest, I worry about my kids being exposed to social media with absolutely no preparation whatsoever, the good and the bad. It’s easy to go into the bad, but if we don’t engage with the ideas of online bullying early, then if the first time that happens is like when they’re off at college, they have no tools and they have no capacity for taking that on.

Not that I would ever subscribe to the idea that screen time has ills, vice, or anything like that. Even if we look at that view, it is so ubiquitous that the earlier we can involve kids in some of the dark pieces, then we can be more controlled. We can figure out pathways to resilience. That is a very negative take on screen time that I don’t personally subscribe to. Our capacity for learning and connection is enormous and there is objective evidence all across the board of where kids are benefiting from the very traditional use of screen time. Not even the more novel things like Mightier.

The earlier we can involve children in some of the dark pieces of social media, then the quicker they can be more controlled. We can figure out pathways to resilience.

Being able to play video games with a set of friends, being able to communicate with a set of friends, and being able to be creative and expressive in something like Minecraft. Social and team objectives in a multiplayer video game. Connecting with identity groups that might be marginalized in social media. These things happen and they’re important. If we are in a conversation where screens are the problem, then I’m not sure the premise is all there.

I’ve done enough research to be semi-knowledgeable in this, so I wanted to speak with you about it because I have exposed my kid to screen time when I need her to be distracted. I feel like that’s something that every parent does at some point in their life. There are times when you’re at the dentist’s office and your kid comes to wait, you can’t have them rummaging around and getting into things. It’s something that is a tool for me to occupy their concentration. When I’m doing that, there are sorts of media that I’ve given her that I know are beneficial for her that have increased her word capacity, and given her the ability to identify things.

She pointed to something the other day and she was like, “Octopus.” I was like, “How do you know what an octopus is?” It’s crazy. I feel like there’s a lot of benefit to it. More importantly, all of these other kids are doing it, so she’s interacting with all these other kids that are exposed to screen time. If she’s not doing it, on some level, that’d be difficult for her socially, and limit her social engagement with other kids. From what I’ve read, the negative aspect of it is that it’s not dynamic learning. It’s just passive learning. It’s like processed food. That information is being fed to her in such a way that it opens up pathways in her brain that should not be opened up at that level. Explain to me the science behind the negative aspects of screen time.

That’s a hard one for me to do because like I said, honestly, I’m not sure. I want to be careful, but this is where the idea of balance comes in. If your only learning is through screens, then yes. We can put it in the same terms as only doing one thing over and over again. We can talk about how maybe there would be a detrimental effect on learning and a detrimental effect on creativity. We can engage in that hypothetical. As a parent, intentionality becomes so important, so do the things you talked about.

First of all, entertainment is a value. A kid finding a few minutes to be entertained, understand, and live in another world has absolute value. A parent having a moment of peace is of value. Your well-being has an outsized impact on your kid’s well-being. If you need to cook dinner or get through a plane ride or have clean teeth, all of these directly impact your kids’ health. The social connection, the ability to talk to kids at school, and having moments of interaction with kids at school are a value. All of these things are great. It’s all about making choices and being intentional.

In addition to the moment of screen time or the moment of entertainment, maybe there’s an opportunity to play with Lego or some more open-ended toy. Maybe there’s a moment to go outside and kick a ball or go on a walk. There is value to being bored. Explore and live in your thoughts. A screen is always a choice that has to be made. Just like playing with Legos is a choice. Just like being on a walk is a choice. Just like being bored, maybe not be a choice if you’re from a kid’s perspective, but it could be a choice from the parent’s perspective.

I would encourage parents to understand that screens can be the right choice. They can be providing a learning environment that would not be available without a screen. They could be providing that moment of entertainment. They can be providing that moment of experience and empathy as you immerse yourself in a story. They can be providing that social connection.

I wish I could remember the quote, but I even dug off something when we were teaching the world how to read. People became horrified. Everyone was all of a sudden going to be lost in books. The world changes and the way we entertain ourselves changes. We can’t get overly caught up on a value. We just have to understand that a healthy kid has lots of experiences. Screens are going to be part of that. There’s no way around it. Screens are going to be part of one of that set. That’s what growing up right now means.

A healthy kid has lots of screen experiences. It will be part of that experience. There’s no way around it.

Are there any negative associations with concentration because of the amount of media that’s available to kids these days? For example, the paradox of choices. I can go on Netflix and I can scroll forever because there’s so much that’s available to me and there’s so much available to children too. They can go on YouTube and there are millions of videos that are available to them. Are there any negative associations with that?

Negative is a strong word. The ability of how kids maintain and switch attention is probably changing. There’s probably objective evidence at that point sifting through peer-reviewed literature. What becomes hard is the positive-negative value judgment. For the world, as it exists for us as adults, being able to sustain attention as we know and being able to attend to a bunch of different things. It usually is not a good thing. It’s hard to say how the world changes and how kids change their world as they grow and adapt. Kids are going to build a different world. We’re deep into philosophy. At this point, kids’ pattern of attention is changing.

Is it changing as in they have less attention than previous generations?

They’re also faster at shifting attention. That could be construed as a good thing.

Is that objectively measured? I see my younger family members and they can spend hours in a video game. I could also spend hours in a video game, but their ability to just do that is more than I was able to do when I was younger.

I’d have to pull up papers, but there are still things coming through like what kids attend to and the speed at which they’ll spend on any one stimulus. We’ve seen some amount of change in that. That leads to value judgments from adults. This is like a population-level piece. This isn’t like any one kid. Anyone who finds something that they’re truly immersed in can spend a lot of time in that space.

This is the part that gets hard for me. I don’t like an adult coming in and saying, “This is good or bad.” I guess I struggle with that. Something like ADHD where it is very prominently impacting the kids’ functioning in school like that, I’m more than willing to come in and say, “We should intervene. We should build a plan for this kid.” I think that piece of kids’ patterns of attention is changing, sure. The world is changing and lots of things are changing.

That doesn’t necessarily mean it’s a bad thing. It just changed. I get that. One specific trait that has been shown to be a predictor of future success is self-control. It’s like the old marshmallow experiment where you put a kid on a chair and you put marshmallows in front of them and you tell them to wait. How long they can wait is consistent with achievement later in life. Is there any technology or intervention that you know that can increase that?

Specifically, that’s where we hypothesize Mightier. It’s a massive help because that is a regulatory pathway. The ability to delay gratification is something that we know is very important. We know that kids who can delay gratification and who can exhibit that top-down control have better success markers later. It’s actually across the board. Social relationships, like people have looked at marriage outcomes, wealth, various achievements, and health even. It is impressive how important that pathway can be.

Kids who can delay gratification and exhibit top-down control have better success markers.

Things like Mightier are improving regulation capacity, which is good. From a parent’s perspective, Mightier is an intervention. If your kid needs help, you can turn to an intervention. Being proactive, it comes back to the wealth of experiences that kids have. Being able to experience a lot of age-appropriate play, like this idea of waiting and delaying gratification. Mightier is an intervention. It can be helpful, but they sort of talk about preventative like play.

We’re getting to the end of our time. With all my guests, I asked them a few questions that I want to know, but maybe the conversation didn’t go there, or maybe we were thinking about them in the conversation, but I didn’t want to ask while we were talking. The first one that I asked almost all my guests is, a lot of what motivates me about building the future is science fiction. I look at the utopian views of how we’re going to be living in the future, like Star Trek. I’m like, “That’s amazing. I hope that we can get to that place.” When it comes to robots, Isaac Asimov and all the amazing benefits that those robots have for society. What drives you in building the future? What are some sources of inspiration for you?

We’ve hinted at them a little bit. My own two kids are huge sources of inspiration. Watching them play and grow and trying to figure out how to take the things that I see making them successful and use the technology that we have or could have to even amplify that even further. It’s a huge part of how I keep going. I think about how much all sorts of play meant to me as a kid. Lego was a big one for me, but also for video games. How I can use those tools in both the happiness that they brought me, but also the learning, and make them part of how we support kids as they grow up. That’s where I get my inspiration from.

One of the things that we did not talk about, which I feel like I wanted to, but it would be a huge sidetrack, is the idea of our children having a great relationship with something that’s not human. For example, my daughter might have a robot as a best friend in the future. Something artificial that has a personality that’s built for her. Do you look forward to that? Is that something that you feel would be a benefit for society? How do you feel about that? It’s something that’s recently coming into the consumer space. You have robots like Moxie, which is like a little robot that teaches you things and has a little bit of a personality. How do you feel about that as a developmental psychologist?

The short answer is I don’t know. The long answer is we’re very social creatures. I think there is a very real benefit. We’re wired as a group to take value out of our group and the unpredictable nature of being in that peer group. I am excited and I’m very eager to see how it all plays out. One of the things that is very true about the world is we’re about to learn how this all plays out. Our ideas are going to change fast. I think about it a lot. For all the thinking I do, I don’t feel like I’ve strongly been, “Yes, I’m excited by this” or “I’m worried about this.”

I’m excited. I’m hopefully optimistic about it. Any sort of social interaction, whether it’s with a human, a dog, or a cat is a benefit for that person. I’m sure that you’ve seen these little seals that they give older individuals in Japan that have added a lot of benefits to their life. That’s something that I see in the robot space that I’m excited about. I hope that my kid is an early adopter in that because any sort of social benefit leads to more quality of life, in my opinion. The last thing that I wanted to ask you. Where do you see specifically the therapy space and the mental health space being in ten years with the advent of all this new technology? Where do you think it’s going to go?

We touched upon this a little bit, but we’re going to see a whole lot more reliance on digital tools. We have to. We’re already past the breaking point of what humans can provide. The next set of changes is going to be, “What tools can live in parallel to human therapy?” Something that you get before you see a therapist, something that you get as an alternative to a therapist or something along those lines. That’s the parallel direction.

FSP - DFY 17 | Emotional Regulation In Children

The augmentative direction is, as a therapist, how you can take the type of things that you would do with technology and use them to expand your reach. Telehealth is only the very tip of the iceberg on this front. Now you can see people all over the world or the state, but we’re going to see a whole lot more of that. Therapists are going to be asked to see more people. Naturally, they’re going to be looking for tools that can help them do that.

Otherwise, we’re not going to be able to keep up. Where we are now, as you pointed out at the beginning, the prevalence is not getting smaller. Where the world is right now, we are pushing more need for mental health interventions. You pointed to teenage suicide rates as a very obvious example of that. We need to figure out how to do better and I think we will. We’re going to get there very quickly.

I think so too. It’s going to be something like going to the gym. Everybody knows they need to do it. It becomes part of their daily habit. You have an exercise for the body. You’re going to have therapy for the mind, and it’ll be ingrained in society. Thanks so much, Jason. It was nice speaking with you. To all of our audience, it was nice having you. We’ll see you guys in the future. Have a good one, everybody.

Thank you.

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About Jason Kahn

FSP - DFY 17 | Emotional Regulation In ChildrenDr Jason Kahn is the Chief Science Officer and co-founder of Mightier. He combines his expertise in developmental psychology and mental health to create video games that help children build emotional strength: the ability to harness their emotions to overcome behavioral challenges. Dr Kahn also holds an appointment at Boston Children’s Hospital and Harvard Medical School, where he creates and researches new technology addressing acute problems in pediatric mental health.


By: The Futurist Society