Whether you view video games for your kid as a blessing or a scourge, they are here to stay. Now a study, armed with $2 million from the National Institute for Mental Health (NIMH), aims to see if playing video games can actually teach your child emotional regulation and improve their mental health.
These are, of course, not games like Grand Theft Auto or Fortnight. The Boston-based company Mightier sells a video game—which requires a subscription for the console and the service—that uses aspects of biofeedback for teaching emotional regulation to kids with a range of behavioral disorders.
Mightier is collaborating with Magellan Healthcare. The study plans to enroll 200 minor members of mental health plans, recruiting kids ages 8-12, all with disorders ranging from ADHD and anxiety to oppositional defiant disorder (ODD), also known as conduct disorder.
Kids diagnosed with ODD, for example, tend to externalize their frustration by throwing objects or having meltdowns. This behavior negatively affects entire families, and early treatment is key. According to Mental Health America, it’s about twice as prevalent among boys, and early onset (before age 10), means those kids “…are at greater risk for persistent difficulties, however, and they are also more likely to have troubled peer relationships and academic problems. Among both boys and girls, conduct disorder is one of the disorders most frequently diagnosed in mental health settings.”
While biofeedback techniques aren’t new, using video games to deliver to children is.
“There are two reasons for this. The first is completely pragmatic: as every parent (myself included) knows, kids love gaming,” Dr. Jason Kahn, CSO and co-founder at Mightier, explains to Parentology. “The second is that games are a terrific learning environment. Integrating biofeedback into gaming means we get to give kids the opportunity to practice regulation while concentrating on the objectives of the games. In this way, games mirror life. The moments we need to regulate most are the times when we’re trying to accomplish something that requires effort and concentration.”
Mightier Already Has Successes
Mightier uses a proprietary game console that teams games with a heart rate monitor. As the game difficulty increases, so does the stress level and the heart rate. The games then prompt the player to keep control of their stress level and emotions, partially by “seeing” what they are feeling on the screen.
The system has already garnered praise and clinical success at both Boston Children’s Hospital and Harvard Medical School. Over a 12 week period, Mightier reduced emotional outbursts by 62%, oppositional behavior by 40% and overall family stress by 19%. That’s a huge benefit, especially when coping with disorders like ODD and autism, which are difficult to treat.
And it’s not the first larger study for the product. In 2020, Magellan and Mightier collaborated on a pilot program to measure the success of using Mightier to support the treatment of children with Autism. Data from that study is expected to be released in the coming months.
Feedback from the pilot program has been positive. “Thus far, after 60 and 90 days parents are reporting to be “very satisfied” with the Mightier program,” Yagnesh Vadgama, BCBA, Magellan Health VP of Clinical Care Services Autism tells Parentology. “At 60 days, parents with Mightier report higher confidence than parents without Mightier. Also, by 60 days parents with Mightier report having more resources to manage their child’s behavior than parents without Mightier.”
The biggest positive is the at home aspect of Mightier; since kids gravitate toward screens anyway, and even more so during this pandemic, a video game might as well be a productive teaching tool. And the results are relatively swift.
“Typically, clinicians see measurable results in 12 weeks. In our scientific work, we rely on validated psychosocial scales designed to help researchers tease apart changes in behaviors and symptoms,” Kahn says. “When Mightier goes into the home, we want to see changes in behaviors that are apparent to parents: kids who can take on more challenges and have more graceful reactions when things get hard, and parents who are less stressed in managing their kids’ behavior.”