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How can this researcher’s video game short-circuit dating violence?

They were the only humans on an alien planet—a mother and her middle school son. Tension was building among the aliens and violence was in the air. Their job was to use the skills they had learned in earlier episodes of the video game to diffuse a dispute between an alien couple.

The game is part of an innovative program designed to teach middle school boys about healthy relationships while learning strategies to diffuse intense interpersonal disputes. The ultimate goal is to reduce dating violence.

Psychology professor Christie Rizzo

Psychology professor Christie Rizzo. Photo by Brooks Canaday

“Playing it was fun,” said Elizabeth, who participated in the program with her 14-year-old son. “It was a way to get to know my son and learn how to ask him questions. I wish I had that opportunity with my older son.”

Her son agreed.

“It was a pretty cool experience,” he said. “Now it’s much easier to talk. Before, I didn’t know my mom that well. We’re much closer now.”

Project STRONG was created by Applied Psychology Professor Christie Rizzo, in collaboration with Chris Houck at Brown Medical School and technology professionals at Klein Buendel, Inc.

Rizzo had already created a pilot program for girls—Date SMART—which produced promising results among high school girls with histories of dating violence. Based on that success, she set out to develop a program tailored specifically to the other half of the dating equation—boys.

The goal is to develop a non-threatening way for boys to talk about relationship issues, communicate with their parents, and practice strategies for identifying and managing the strong emotions that lead to physical and psychological abuse.

Rizzo is on a roll in terms of federal research funding. She currently has three grants totaling nearly $4 million and expects to win a fourth in July.

“Over the past 10 years the federal government has become more interested in these programs because dating violence has long-lasting effects,” said Rizzo. “It can contribute to substance abuse, eating disorders, risky sexual behavior, and further domestic violence. Dating violence increases the burden on law enforcement, healthcare, and the criminal justice system. To prevent this type of violence, you have to start early.”

Nearly 10 percent of all high school girls have experienced dating violence in the last year, according to a Centers for Disease Control report. The annual cost to society is $5.8 billion, according to another CDC report.

 Rizzo’s newest project (SNAP) is designed to harness the power of social media to understand and diffuse dating violence.

“We need to be on their phone,” she said. “These days, threats, intimidation, and coercion often happen through text messages and social media, making this type of communication a window into adolescents’ dating relationships.”

Project SNAP will monitor these communications—and the girls’ responses—to understand how online interactions affect real-world violence. By understanding these moment-to-moment linkages, Rizzo hopes to build a mobile phone intervention that monitors digital communication in real time and provides immediate feedback to promote healthy dating relationships.

“We want to provide tailored feedback to teens as their conflicts are escalating so we can prevent violence before it happens,” said Rizzo.

Safety for girls

Rizzo became interested in dating violence while earning her post-doctoral fellowship in clinical psychology at Brown University. She was providing mental health treatment to teens and realized that many were struggling with relationship violence. When she realized that the tools needed to help them were not available, she decided to do research of her own.

Her first project was Date SMART, which involved 109 girls who had experienced either physical or sexual dating violence.

Based on cognitive behavioral therapy, Rizzo developed a six-week program for girls, focusing on strategies for dealing with jealousy, sexual demands, cheating, and violence.

The girls practice proven strategies for managing strong feelings like anger, sadness, and jealousy. They work to identify not just what a healthy relationship might look like, but what it might ‘feel’ like.  This focus on feelings is applied to their own relationships when teens role-play a previous conflict that went poorly. They practice approaching that same conflict with skills that help calm their bodies and diffuse tension before violence erupts.

“Our research showed a reduction in dating violence over the next nine months,” said Rizzo. “By changing their thinking about their relationships and providing tools to be more in charge of their feelings, girls felt empowered to make healthier choices. It created an ‘Aha’ moment.”

With the success of the initial Date SMART study, Rizzo is now working with girls at the Rhode Island Family Court.

“Youth in the juvenile justice system have higher rates of dating violence than other teens so there is a great need for a program like Date SMART,” she said. “We hope that the strategies learned in our program not only reduce dating violence but also prevent recidivism,” said Rizzo.

The difference between boys and girls

With Date SMART up and running, Rizzo turned her attention to boys. But she quickly realized that the way to engage boys is vastly different than for girls.

“I’ve done mixed gender groups and found that I either lose the boys or lose the girls,” she said. “Not every girl is interested in romantic relationships, but most are, and they want to talk about it. For boys, this is not something they want to talk about.”

With this in mind, her program for boys— Project STRONG—had to be structured differently. Instead of face-to-face therapy sessions, Rizzo designed a video game for middle school boys to play with their parents. The goal was to open up lines of discussion and gradually steer those discussions to techniques for managing emotions and de-escalating tense interpersonal relationships.

The program is based on Developmental Assets Theory, a strengths-based approach which asserts that family support, knowledge, values, and social skills are necessary for healthy development.

“The vast majority of existing programs don’t capitalize on the importance of parents in modeling and influencing the choices their child makes in their future romantic relationships,” said Rizzo.

To make this activity less threatening to boys, she made the entire game take place on an alien planet. The parent and son work as a team to solve a variety of problems. In the early episodes, these tasks are fun, competitive and emotionally non-threatening—destroying a shower of asteroids that are about to hit the planet, for example.

As the game progresses, and the parent and child bond over their rescue efforts, the challenges become more interpersonal in nature, culminating in an escalating sexual dispute between two aliens. It’s their job to use the techniques they’ve learned to diffuse the situation, and they are allowed to experiment with several techniques until they’re successful.

The game also includes several prompts that encourage the parent and child to talk about experiences. They share stories about dating and emotions.

“My mother asked me a lot about what happens at school,” said Timmy, one of the boys in the study. “I think she was pretty surprised by the amount of bullying.”

His mother, Dunusha, said the most important part of the program is the lasting effect it has on the parent/child relationship.

“We still have conversations about it a year later and he refers back to things he learned during the training,” she said. “He’s a young 13 and not dating yet, but this provided a nice grounding for having those conversations in the future. There was a lot of discussion about what a healthy relationship looks like.”

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