ATTENTION to vibration! An application of Attention Training Technique to the use of new technologies

The “Shift Focus and Be Positive” project was aimed at offering adolescents “tools” useful for the correct use of the Internet and new technologies, with particular reference to the positive management of potentially stressful situations.

Claudia Marino – OPEN SCHOOL Cognitive Psychotherapy and Research, Mestre

 

Advertising message It is increasingly common to hear that “teenagers are sick because they are always connected” or that “today’s kids are distracted because they always have the phone in their hands”. Consequently, there is also a frequent request from teachers and parents to help children “turn off the phone at least while they study” because “how can they concentrate if the smartphone vibrates continuously?”. In line with the concerns of society regarding the effect of new technologies, it has recently been shown that the problematic use of the Internet, the smartphone and all its applications can lead to negative consequences for the health of young people (e.g., Liang & Leung , 2018; Marino, Gini, Vieno, & Spada, 2018). Difficulty falling asleep, anxiety, depression, loneliness, low levels of academic success are just a few of these. In concrete terms, the discomfort experienced online could be traced back to daily events in the online life of children, such as not receiving reactions (for example in terms of likes and shares) to their posts and photos uploaded to social networks, or receiving unpleasant messages or even feeling stressed by the quantity of messages received and the pressure to have to respond immediately to everyone (e.g. Marino, Finos, Vieno, Lenzi, & Spada, 2017) or the Fear Of Missing Out (FOMO, i.e. the fear of being excluded from important events; Fuster, Chamarro, & Oberst, 2017) and phubbing (i.e., looking at the smartphone during an interpersonal interaction; Chotpitayasunondh & Douglas, 2016). In this sense, it has also been shown that the problematic use of technologies, in terms of loss of control of the time spent online and impairment of school and friends life, it has to do with the difficulty in self-regulation from an emotional, cognitive and behavioral point of view (e.g., Caplan, 2010). It would seem, for example, that people with high levels of problematic use of the Internet tend to ruminate and mull over more than “non-problematic” (Şenormanci et al., 2013) as a strategy to deal with negative online events; however, these strategies help increase their anxiety and depression levels (Wang et al., 2018). that people with high levels of problematic use of the Internet tend to ruminate and mull over more than “unproblematic” (Şenormanci et al., 2013) as a strategy to deal with negative online events; however, these strategies help increase their anxiety and depression levels (Wang et al., 2018). that people with high levels of problematic use of the Internet tend to ruminate and mull over more than “unproblematic” (Şenormanci et al., 2013) as a strategy to deal with negative online events; however, these strategies help increase their anxiety and depression levels (Wang et al., 2018).

So what can we do with teenagers to prevent problematic Internet use?

Spada and Marino (2017) recently suggested the potential usefulness of prevention interventions that aim to modify the beliefs that children have about their own thoughts and attentional flexibility. In fact, according to metacognitive theory (Wells, 2009), Cognitive Attentional Syndrome (CAS) is a particular style of thought that plays a fundamental role in psychological disorders, including risky behaviors such as problematic use of the Internet (Spada et al , 2008). CAS refers to a persevering style of thinking that manifests itself in the form of brooding, rumination, attention focused on the source of the threat and maladaptive coping behaviors that prevent an effective self-regulation of emotions and thoughts (see for example, Fisher & Wells, 2009). In the specific context of the use of the Internet, the presence of some meta-knowledge can activate maladaptive coping strategies such as brooding and rumination; in turn, they facilitate the use of the Internet as a preferential means of emotional and cognitive self-regulation, thus favoring a dysregulated and problematic use of technologies (Spada & Marino, 2017; Marino, Vieno, Moss, Caselli, Nikčević, & Sword, 2016). Furthermore, it seems that these styles of thinking are consolidated during the early years of adolescence (e.g., Bacow, Pincus, Ehrenreich, & Brody, 2009), just as in adolescence the problematic use of the Internet begins to manifest itself as a problem. they facilitate the use of the Internet as a preferential means of emotional and cognitive self-regulation, thus favoring a dysregulated and problematic use of technologies (Spada & Marino, 2017; Marino, Vieno, Moss, Caselli, Nikčević, & Spada, 2016) . Furthermore, it seems that these styles of thinking are consolidated during the early years of adolescence (e.g., Bacow, Pincus, Ehrenreich, & Brody, 2009), just as in adolescence the problematic use of the Internet begins to manifest itself as a problem. they facilitate the use of the Internet as a preferential means of emotional and cognitive self-regulation, thus favoring a dysregulated and problematic use of technologies (Spada & Marino, 2017; Marino, Vieno, Moss, Caselli, Nikčević, & Spada, 2016) . Furthermore, it seems that these styles of thinking are consolidated during the early years of adolescence (e.g., Bacow, Pincus, Ehrenreich, & Brody, 2009), just as in adolescence the problematic use of the Internet begins to manifest itself as a problem.

With this in mind, we have built and implemented a pilot preventive project for teenagers that aimed to increase the awareness of children with respect to their attentional skills, to practice moving attention away from the effects of “technological” triggers through Attention Training Technique (ATT) to reduce the impact of CAS and to experiment techniques based on problem solving in place of those based on persevering styles of thinking to face difficult online situations.

The project was built by researchers and collaborators from the Department of Developmental and Socialization Psychology of the University of Padua in collaboration with London South Bank University and involved the participation of each class (first, second and third of the secondary school of second degree) to two meetings of about two hours each, on a weekly basis and in the presence of the teachers referring to the project. The meetings were characterized by a high degree of interactivity, often associated with greater effectiveness of preventive interventions with adolescents.

The project was aimed at offering adolescents useful “tools” for the correct use of the Internet and new technologies, with particular reference to the positive management of potentially stressful situations that occur online (for example, being excluded from a Whatsapp group, see that their “friends” publish photos of events to which they have not been invited on Facebook or Instagram, receive an excessive number of messages from a too insistent companion, not receive enough “like” to a photo, feel “tormented” by the vibration of the smartphone).

Specifically, during the first meeting, interactive activities were proposed aimed at highlighting the negative consequences of the CAS and at developing functional problem solving strategies. Through a team card game and a final discussion, the kids were stimulated to recognize and reason about the existence of two types of strategies that can be adopted when faced with an uncomfortable online situation: some are more passive and centered on brooding or rumination which, as we have seen, do not allow the situation to be positively resolved; others focus on the problem and allow the individual to think about what he can actually do to find a solution (problem solving strategies).

The second meeting, a week after the first, had the aim of practicing in shifting attention from “technological” triggers (for example, the vibration of the smartphone, a notification on social networks, a message from Whatasapp) to reduce the negative consequences of CAS and thus improving the quality of time spent in the classroom and not (e.g. by shifting the focus from the smartphone vibration to the content of the lesson, or to the football game). To this end, an adaptation to the ATT theme (Wells, 2009) and an “ATT participatory” were proposed to the children. Specifically, a 12-minute audio track was preliminarily designed and recorded containing a sequence of “technological” sounds (eg, vibration, smartphone ringtone, printer noise, notifications sounds) which followed the alternation and overlapping of sounds in a similar way to Wells’ original ATT (1990): selective attention on one sound at a time, rapid movement from one sound to another and “divided” attention simultaneously on more sounds. The audio was made to listen in class and the boys were asked to follow the instructions of the audio voice. The discussion that followed the activity made it possible for the children to be aware of the fact that, by exercising, it was possible to direct their attention. In the second part of the second meeting, the boys instead “built” an “attended” ATT in which, impersonating different roles (eg, the teacher, the parent, etc.), they used their voices and phrases to shift attention from time to time with the aim of concretely showing how to lower the attention-shifting exercise in daily life. This adaptation of the ATT was presented not as a coping strategy to be used in times of stress but as an experiential activity in which the boys experienced their meta-cognitive control over mental processes in terms of ability to manage attention and to be able not to “fixate” excessively on their negative feelings and thoughts (Fisher & Wells, 2009) triggered, at times, by a technological trigger.

A total of 104 students participated in the project (39 males and 57 females; Half = 14.8, DS = .84; N = 8 participants lack the relevant data) attending 4 classes (two of the first, 1 of the second and 1 of the third) ) of a secondary school of Padua. On average, kids report spending around 3 hours on the Internet on any day of the week.

In order to evaluate the effectiveness of the proposed activities in promoting good practices related to the use of the Internet, the boys were asked to answer two anonymous questionnaires, one at the beginning of the project and one about a week after the second meeting, subsequently paired on the basis of an alphanumeric code. Specifically, the students completed the following scales:

As for online activities, it emerged that children use the internet with high frequency (“often” and “very often”) to chat (74%), be on social networks (82%), to listen to music (78%) and watching tv series (55.2%). On the other hand, activities related to online video games (17.6%) reveal a lower frequency of use. In general, the use of the Internet in adolescence would seem closely linked to the socialization needs characteristic of this phase of life and to activities in which to immerse oneself like music and TV series.

Advertising message A series of paired t-tests were conducted on the collected data to evaluate whether, between the first and second administration, there were any changes in the averages of problematic use (t (92) = 1.43; p =. 16) and CAS (t (92) = -1.87; p = .06). The total scores in these two aspects did not change significantly between pre and post intervention. Following a purely exploratory approach, we conducted a series of t-tests for paired samples using single items of the scales with the aim of observing in detail any changes in particular aspects of the problematic use of the Internet and the CAS.

Compared to the time spent watching movies or TV series, we observed a significant decrease in the frequency of implementation of this behavior (t (91) = 2.77, p <.05). In particular, the percentage of children who use the Internet for this purpose “very often” during the day almost halves, going from 26% to 15%.

Compared to the problem of the problematic use of the internet (SPIUT) “Did you notice that you stayed online longer than you wanted?”, The ability to manage consciously the amount of time spent online seems to have improved (t (92) = 2.54 , p <.05). In addition, the boys reported that they had received less reproaches from their parents or friends because of the too frequent use of the Internet at the end of the intervention (t (92) = 2.03, p <.05).

With respect to the CAS-I questions, we observed significant changes in three items. Specifically, the engagement in brooding has diminished (“In the last week how much time have you spent brooding or worrying about your problems”, t (92) = 3.77, p <.001). Furthermore, compared to the coping strategies used to deal with negative emotions or thoughts, children seem to “keep thinking about it” (t (92) = 3.56, p <.001) and “immerse themselves in TV series” (t (92) = 2.85 , p <.01) less frequently after surgery.

In one of the 4 items built ad hoc for this project (“People can control their attention”), the boys reported a higher level of agreement in the post-test than in the pre-test (t (92) = -2.95, p <.05), indicating that they have become more aware of the possibility of actively controlling their attention.

The preliminary results of this prevention intervention seem to indicate that, although limited to just two meetings, the proposed activities have led to an improvement in the ability to manage time spent online, to use more adaptive strategies, and that the children have understood that they can control the direction of their attention to avoid the negative effects of CAS. In other words, consistently with the initial objectives, the project allowed the children to learn new tools useful for dealing with and managing positively any stressful situations in online life. In particular,

Furthermore, it seems that the boys have grasped another of the central points of the intervention: brooding and continuing to think about problems and concerns is not useful, just as it is not useful to choose immunizing behaviors to suppress thoughts such as immersing oneself in TV series in order not to think (Fisher & Wells, 2009).

In the final phase of the meetings, the shared reflection to which the boys arrived, experiencing first-hand the problem solving and verifying that it is possible to manage the attention, was that often what makes a person feel bad is not so much what it happens online or the specific content of her thoughts about that event, but the kind of response she gives to the things that happen to her and that she thinks. In other words, it is not more or less negative situations (let alone the Internet per se) that determines how we feel and how much we think about it, but how we decide to react to them. This conclusion seemed particularly in line with what Wells proposed in relation to the role of the style of thought that we adopt most frequently in directing our attention (Wells, 2013).

This report aims to present some preliminary evidence and is obviously characterized by a series of limits to be taken into account, including the lack of a control group, the non-random selection of the sample, the lack (for now) of a follow -up, the low sample size.

Nonetheless, we find it interesting to share with the community of psychologists that with just two psycho-educational encounters in the classrooms it is possible to affect the styles of thinking and, indirectly, the use of the Internet by adolescents. In particular, although it is preferable to use the ATT within a psychotherapeutic path, these results indicate that the mechanism of the ATT could constitute a valid tool also in the field of prevention work with adolescents.

Finally, we think that replicating the project in other classes and contexts may be desirable to help verify whether intervening on metacognitive processes can be a promising way of preventing the much feared problematic use of the Internet among adolescents.