Koko – An App To Help With Stress?

Here’s the concept of Koko:

When I’m unhappy or “stressed”, I write a few sentences, e.g., about the terrible consequences soon to come, and post to the network, and push the “help me reinterpret these thoughts”. In a little while, one or more strangers will reply with suggestions for how to find positive interpretations.

This is basically Cognitive Behavior Therapy, except there is no trusted therapist or human contact, just an app and a social media “crowd”. It’s “crowdsourced cognitive therapy”.

This is similar to aspects of McGonigal’s Superbetter, and is based on some of the same science. And it appeals to technophiles.

But….

Instead of working with “allies”, this app is depersonalized, and gives only anonymous advice from strangers. As far as I can tell, the advice comes from other people who subscribe to the service—people like you, but otherwise unqualified and uninformed.

Even if this is the right thing for you, one has to wonder if it will actually work. Yes, there is limited empirical support for the web based version, but who knows if the phone app, used by different populations, will do anything useful.

One tiny point: using mobile devices and apps is generally a source of stress and maladaptive behavior, especially “social” apps that promise you a (reinforcing) response and attention from (we hope sympathetic) strangers. See Greenfield, Turkle, and others. However good the advice might be, delivering it via this kind of app seems like a really stressful approach. Certainly not as helpful as a friendly smile from a person in the same room.

I have to wonder, too, if it is a good idea to train people to turn to strangers on the Internet, rather than family, friends, colleagues, teachers—real people in their life. Many of the “problems” likely stem from social anxieties of some kind, anxieties that are caused by or made worse by paying attention to screens rather than people. Doesn’t turning to the screen for help make the problem worse by avoiding and preventing the person from learning how to actually relate to others in person?

I’m kind of concerned that the “allies”(to use McGonigal’s terminology) are not selected by you, nor are they necessarily people with any particular relevant knowledge or experience.. In fact, we don’t know who they are, or why they are “helping” you, other than they signed up for the same app. (That alone should scare you off, don’t you think?)

In fact, we know that people are likely to present themselves the way they want to be see, and the way they think others want them to be. Indeed, the web site describes how people “learn” to contribute to the community. That is, they are shaped to conform to the style of problem and problem solving that is on offer, whether you had those problems or not, and no matter what your real problems are.

So just how authentic are these presented problems? Are we even “treating” the real problems? Or are we playing a soothing game in which we stroke each other by helping each other write positive stories about themselves?

But the biggest thing that strikes me is, who in their right mind would give advice this way?

How can you help someone “reinterpret” their thoughts, lacking all context? How can your advice be anything other than generic advice seasoned with ill informed guesses and prejudices about the unstated history and context? Shooting nearly blind, I’d be scared that I’d make it worse rather than better.

Heck, I hesitate to give advice to people in person, unless I know them really, really well. Working from a few typed sentences, all I could say is, “I dunno”. I can only see one side of the story, or, actually, only a tiny statement from one side of the story. What is really going on? What do the other people think? How did it get this way? There is no way to know or find out.

For that matter, I don’t know you, and have no way to know if this is real or exaggerated or even just made up. (That alone should scare you off, no?)

How could “helping” a person this way go wrong? Well, the entire point is to give them ways to think about things differently. This implies that they are thinking about them incorrectly, or at least too negatively. But how do I know that? What if they are underestimating the seriousness of the situation? If I tell them to think positively and keep on, I could be sending them into a disaster, with a foolishly optimistic attitude.

Or there could be real problems that they need to rethink, but which they didn’t pose to the net. Naively dealing with what they say is the problem might be useless or, worse, might reinforce their own denial and evasion.

It’s a minefield, I tell you.

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