Virtual communities may foster mental health in severely ill kids

Research pilot earns tufts child development expert Presidential Early Career Award for Scientists and Engineers

Medford/Somerville, Mass. -- Pilot research into how virtual environments can foster positive development in severely ill youth who are at risk for mental-health problems has earned Marina Bers, assistant professor of child development at Tufts University, a 2005 Presidential Early Career Award for Scientists and Engineers. This award is the highest honor given by the U.S. government to outstanding scientists and engineers at the early stages of their careers.

Bers was nominated to receive this honor by the National Science Foundation, which in 2005 gave her an NSF Career Award and five-year grant for her work on virtual communities of learning and care.

Bers is leading a longitudinal study of solid organ (kidney, lung, and heart) transplant patients at Children's Hospital Boston that looks at how creating a virtual environment can promote positive development in post-transplant adolescents and encourage these young patients to adhere to often onerous treatment protocols.

"Adolescents who have had an organ transplant have, in a sense, acquired a chronic, severe illness that will change their lives forever. In addition to physical challenges, they face stress, uncertainty, and isolation plus the typical issues that adolescence brings, such as a need to assert their independence," said Bers. "As a result, these patients may stop taking their medication or rebel against instructions from their doctors."

Bers and her students in the Developmental Technologies Group at Tufts University, in collaboration with colleagues in the Department of Psychiatry and the Transplantation Program at Children's Hospital Boston, are investigating whether "identity construction environments" can help these patients in their personal and social development, as well as in their medical adherence and coping strategies.

Building a Virtual World

Enter "Zora," a three-dimensional virtual world first designed by Bers as part of her doctoral work at the MIT Media Lab. Zora provides tools for children to create, chat, navigate, and inhabit their graphical virtual city, and populate it with objects, characters, and stories. Kids can make avatars to represent themselves and develop corresponding profiles that specify personal heroes and villains, cherished values, and biographies. Several users can interact and communicate with each other in real time through a chat system. The fact that the children actively construct and control their own identities and worlds, rather than merely participating in an online chat room or playing a computer game, is essential, according to Bers.

In an initial pilot project, Bers used Zora to help youngsters undergoing kidney dialysis at Children's Hospital Boston. "These kids were drawn out of their isolation by participating in these virtual environments on bedside computers. They were able to explore their identities, values, and hopes with privacy, yet still communicate with fellow patients, nurses, or doctors," Bers said.

Post-transplant patients in the current study will use Zora at home, and their development will be evaluated over time. Among the benchmarks will be the "6 Cs" of positive youth development, including competence, confidence, connection, character, caring, and contribution to society. Part of that development will be compliance with medical treatment. "Technology is only a means to an end. The focus is on the kids," said Bers, who notes that she never liked technology as a kid growing up in Buenos Aires.

Good Science from Mothers, Immigrants

As a mother of three and a native of Argentina, Bers takes special satisfaction in the Presidential Early Career Award.

"Twelve years ago I left my home in Argentina with the dream of coming to the States to study with pioneers in the emerging field of children and technology," she said when accepting her award at the White House. "For me, this award is recognition of the fact that women can do good science--and they can do good science as spouses and mothers. It's also recognition of the fact that Latin-American immigrants to this country can make a career and contribute to their own discipline and to society--even if our accent never goes away."

Bers plans to expand her research to include immigrant youth, who also face issues of isolation.

Bers came to the U.S. in 1994 to attend Boston University, from which she earned her M.ED., and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, where she earned her M.S. and Ph.D. In 2001, she joined Tufts University as an assistant professor in the Eliot-Pearson Department of Child Development. She is also an adjunct professor in the Department of Computer Science at Tufts. She became a U.S. citizen in 2001.

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Tufts University, located on three Massachusetts campuses in Boston, Medford/Somerville, and Grafton, and in Talloires, France, is recognized among the premier research universities in the United States. Tufts enjoys a global reputation for academic excellence and for the preparation of students as leaders in a wide range of professions. A growing number of innovative teaching and research initiatives span all Tufts campuses, and collaboration among the faculty and students in the undergraduate, graduate and professional programs across the university's eight schools is widely encouraged.


Last reviewed: By John M. Grohol, Psy.D. on 21 Feb 2009
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