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New challenges, new solutions [Commentary]

America has crossed a few ominous thresholds that should give us pause. For one, poisonings are killing more people than car crashes in the United States, making them the leading cause of accidental death in the country for the first time. The vast majority of those deaths are from legal, prescription drugs. Second, more children report having been tormented and harassed online than in "real-life"; 43 percent of kids claim to be victims of such cyber-bullying. According to Yale University, victims of bullying are nearly 10 times more likely to consider suicide than non-victims. While these issues are of course widely disparate, they both share the dark side to modernity and innovation: the easy availability of cheap, legal drugs and free, open information has led to deadly abuse.

Our scientific, medical and technical advances have provided huge benefits to society. But we need modern thinking to mitigate their unintended effects.

One strategy is gaming — "serious" gaming, to be precise, in which "players" are immersed in simulated environments that allow them to make real-time decisions, see their effects, and, if necessary, change course.

In the 1970s, children got important information on everything from STDs to depression through the best available mediums, such as preachy television "after school specials" or filmstrips. Adults got public service announcements or brochures. But the old ways of talking "at" people in dated mediums clearly won't cut it anymore. Even informational websites are drowned out in a sea of competition. Despite the availability of tons of data about the risks of prescription drugs and the effects of bullying, abuse persists and is in fact growing. The message isn't getting through, especially when it comes to reaching a generation that is used to greater dialogue and interaction.

And that's why behavior change gaming is so promising: It best reflects how people increasingly interact and acquire information. Today, social media channels provide children with a flood of content in nearly real time. A now famous Kaiser Foundation study found that today's kids spend an average of 7.5 hours every day consuming media, most of it in the form of smartphone apps and Buzzfeed quizzes. The popularity of alternative reality games on Playstation and X-Box evidence the sophistication of children's digital interaction with content.

Adults aren't much different. According to a report from digital research firm eMarketer, American adults now spend an average of over five hours per day consuming digital media — a 15 percent increase over the year before. Nearly half of that time is spent on mobile devices. And adults are also gravitating toward "interactive" content: Pew Research Center says that the majority of tablet users are adults (18-35 years old), proving that touch screen interactivity has a strong appeal.

Combining proven educational programming with engaging, interactive digital media can shape decision-making in adults and youth alike. The content is often offered as a web or mobile device-based interactive movie with high production value, allowing users to make choices for characters at key points in the plot. A poor decision results in realistic repercussions.

Many organizations have already caught on to this approach. The military has used such behavior modification games and films to positive effect, particularly in stemming suicides and developing the next generation of leaders. Hospitals have used these interactive technologies to improve bedside manner for caregivers. Likewise, The NFL has used it to improve player conduct off the field, and engineering schools have used it to improve professional ethical decision-making.

As communities, professionals and policymakers confront new social challenges in our increasingly wired, open lives, their responses need to be just as novel. Beyond government regulation, self-policing, and traditional education, interactive technology must be a tool in the kit bag for changing behavior.

Sharon Sloane is the co- founder and CEO of Potomac-MD based WILL Interactive. Her email is sharon@willinteractive.com.

To respond to this commentary, send an email to talkback@baltimoresun.com. Please include your name and contact information.

Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun
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