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Can Video Games and Twitter Solve Insomnia Issues?

That’s the question on the mind of sleep researchers at Lincoln University, who have noted the ways that people interact on various social networks and wonder whether a therapeutic technique could be created that would have the same impact. The scientists are hoping that by carefully investigating the ways that sites like Twitter and games like Candy Crush keep people engaged, they can provide improved access to cognitive behavioral therapy, the most effective form of therapy available for the treatment of insomnia.

Cognitive behavior therapy is already delivered via computer, as are many other types of therapies used to treat insomnia, depression and anxiety, but sleep experts believe that the fact that therapies delivered via the computer are generally delivered to patients that are isolated, they may not be as beneficial as those that have a more social aspect or are supported by family, friends, and a more regular interaction with a therapist. By finding a way to make the therapies delivery more similar to the same kind of repetitive and driven response generated by social media, they hope to make cognitive behavioral therapy more impactful.

Cognitive Behavioral Therapy is a highly effective form of therapy in the treatment of insomnia, and is generally acknowledged as far more successful and long lasting than any other remedy available for those suffering from the inability to fall asleep or stay asleep. The approach provides poor sleepers with lessons on how to avoid patterns of activity that strengthen their sleep problems and offer instead approaches that will encourage them to engage in more positive behaviors that will make sleep come more easily. Many of these lessons are currently available via computerized lessons that patients can access on personal computers, but the researchers realized that those types of lessons do not take advantage of the ways that people are utilizing computers today.

Where people once turned to computers as an innovative way for lessons that could be delivered conveniently and individually, the approach did not take advantage of the nearly addictive impact that characterizes the use of social media. According to Dr. Shaun Lawson, a reader computer science, there was a realization that more was needed. “The way that people interact with computers these days is not by sitting down in a room on their own looking at a screen. Today people use computers to connect with each other.”

Dr. Lawson is on a mission to figure out exactly what it is about the social networks that drive the level of engagement that they do, and then borrow the same strategy to strengthen the impact of computer-based cognitive behavioral therapy systems. “he way that people engage with social networks, how many times they do it in a day, it is very similar to the kind of ways that we would really want people to interact with CBT treatment.” The potential for replicating that level of engagement would shift the therapy from a single session once per week to multiple interactions over the course of a week, and also holds the potential of having people use the therapy for a more extended period of time and therefore get a greater level of benefit with longer lasting results.

Dr. Lawson has set out to accomplish his task by first delving into studying the pattern of activity that is common in social networks, and what drives it. “What’s interesting on social networks,” he says, “is that people are more likely to self-disclose on them.” Referring to the tendency to talk about things that are either upsetting them or making them happy, small victories and big disappointments, he says that these musings come up more online than they do in one-on-one conversations.   He also is planning to focus on exactly how that could relate to therapy being applied specifically to insomnia patients rather than those suffering from anxiety or depression because the causes tend to be more straightforward and respond better to CBT. “Insomnia is isolated as a condition.” He says that makes it easier to tell whether a patient is improving or not, and also makes it easier to gauge one therapeutic approach over another. As for the social media networks themselves, Lawson is particularly interested in the draw of social network games such as Farmville, and the enthusiasm that they generate. “The big question is why do so many people play it? That’s not well understood.”

Once the researchers are able to determine the reasons behind the unprecedented attraction of social media games, they plan to use what they find and incorporate it into already existing online cognitive behavioral therapy tools. Speaking of games like Farmville, Dr. Lawson says, “It uses mechanisms to hook into emotions to keep people coming back to it. It gives you little tasks to complete but you can only see the benefit of those tasks if you wait a couple of days. It’s that kind of thinking we’re interested in. Can we create a Farmville type of game that embeds some of the CBT principles in there?”

The research is being highly praised for its potential by others in the mental health community. According to Dr. Andrew McCulloch, head of the Mental Health Foundation, computer-based cognitive behavioral therapy could go a long way towards helping those who either have no access to a cognitive behavioral therapist or those who seem to need more positive feedback than the single weekly sessions are able to provide. “Although CBT is one of the most effective treatments for mental health problems such as depression and anxiety, some patients are still finding it difficult to access therapy,” he says. “The use of online and computerized courses in CBT are therefore becoming increasingly widely used, in order to provide therapy to people with mild to moderate needs.”

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