Empathy: There’s an app for that!
Kids can become more compassionate by playing a smartphone game
Teens and younger children may learn to be kinder and more empathetic by playing a game on their phones, thanks to a new, interactive app, “Random App of Kindness” (RAKi), created by social science researchers. RAKi is available free of charge in the iTunes App Store and Google Play Android Market.
Prior research by Sara Konrath at the Indiana University Lilly Family School of Philanthropy, who led the team that developed the app, found that empathy in young adults has been declining by 40 percent since 1979. With many people believing smartphone use impairs empathy, she and her team decided to try to create an app that could instead make people more compassionate.
“Young people are heavy users of mobile phones, and our team realized that there is a major content gap in such devices. There are very few smartphone games or apps that directly encourage kindness and caring for children. Those that do exist are rarely rigorously tested to see if they have the intended effect,” Konrath said. “We hoped to marry scientific principles with fun and engaging design.”
The app was developed by Konrath and a multidisciplinary team of collaborators: Brad Bushman (Ohio State University), Rich Tolman (University of Michigan), and Matthew Winslow (Eastern Kentucky University). Leading mobile-game developers from the technology development company HabitatSeven worked closely with the researchers to use evidence-based approaches to envision, create, and evaluate it. HopeLab, a social innovation firm, also supported the development of early prototypes. The project was funded by a grant from the John Templeton Foundation.
RAKi includes a series of nine mini-games that each aim to strengthen a specific, basic building block of empathy. For example, one game helps players to better identify which facial expressions signify particular emotions. The games were designed and user-tested with input from teens. The researchers conducted a randomized control trial examining the effects of playing with the RAKi app for two months, compared to playing a control game (the app “Two Dots”) for the same length of time.
Preliminary results suggest that children and teens ages 10-17 who played RAKi for two months had more compassionate emotional responses to another teen in distress (compared to those who played the control game). In addition, the RAKi app led to more helping behavior and a reduction in beliefs that it was okay to use aggression as a way to solve problems. The researchers hope to publish their results in a peer-reviewed journal in the future.
Importantly, teens are positively engaging with the game. Some participants liked that it made morals and values fun instead of lecturing, while others enjoyed not knowing how to use the app at the beginning and having to figure it out on their own. This gave them a sense of accomplishment after beating a difficult level. Teens also were excited to help others, both in the game and in real life. After playing RAKi for two months, one teen couldn’t wait to tell researchers that she planned to make blankets to donate to a local children’s hospital.
More information about Random App of Kindness is available at http://www.rakigame.com, including videos and screenshots of the app. Information about the results of the research study will be updated on the website as it becomes available.
Lilly Family School of Philanthropy The Indiana University Lilly Family School of Philanthropy is dedicated to improving philanthropy to improve the world by training and empowering students and professionals to be innovators and leaders who create positive and lasting change. The school offers a comprehensive approach to philanthropy through its academic, research and international programs and through The Fund Raising School, Lake Institute on Faith & Giving, and the Women’s Philanthropy Institute. Follow us on Twitter or “Like” us on Facebook.