What Does the Popularity of Pokémon Go Say About Our Society?

By Elizabeth Cobb, LCSW

As a non-tech savvy millennial, I am in the minority for my generation. I am always the last to download the new hottest app, and by then it has been replaced by an even hotter app. So I was bewildered when I started hearing about the new Pokémon Go game. Was I missing something? Wasn't Pokémon cool in the 90’s? I started to get some explanations from the nightly news, along with a multitude of stories about the dangers of this new national craze. People falling off mountains, wandering into dangerous areas, getting mugged...You get the picture.

So if you are one of the two people on the planet (myself included) who has not played the game, here is the basic premise: Pokémon Go was released by Nintendo as a mobile app utilizing augmented reality, a promising new technology that is being used in the field of medicine and elsewhere. Augmented reality has many practical applications and is being used to treat anxiety, depression, PTSD and other physical conditions.  So what exactly is augmented reality? Instead of taking you into a new world, augmented reality enhances the experience you are already having in the real world.  Utilizing GPS, Pokémon Go makes Pokémon appear in your everyday surroundings. Players roam around looking for Pokémon to capture, aiming to build the biggest and rarest collection of prized Pokémon. Cool, right? Yes, but there is a darker side to the game and its implication for our social and emotional health.

I was mildly curious after learning about Pokémon Go, but not enough to download the app and join the craze. As a non-player, I didn’t think my life would be impacted at all, but I was definitely wrong. As a therapist in private practice in NYC, Pokémon Go comes up in therapy all of the time! In fact, according to one client, my office is a Pokémon hot spot.  The app has young and old glued to their phones, and I see a range of reactions from my clients.  Some simply adore the game, others express frustration, and some even are bemoaning the loss of their loved one’s attention.

This got me thinking about the psychological, emotional and societal implications of an obsession like Pokémon Go. This was reinforced during a recent hike in the Hudson River Valley. While I was gazing out at the beautiful vistas of the Hudson River, my fellow hikers were glued to their phones looking for Pokémon. I was astonished that people were missing out on the peaceful beauty of a summer day.  At that moment I decided to write this article.

Apps like Pokémon Go are part of a larger trend of mobile technology that is disrupting our society and how we interact with each other… or don’t. This phenomenon is nothing new, but is a disappointing application of a promising technology.  Proponents of the app argue that it was developed to motivate kids to get moving. But let’s look at the larger implications of that argument. What does it say that we need a video game to motivate people to walk? And even if people are getting out and about, they aren't enjoying their surroundings because they've "gotta catch ‘em all". While Pokémon Go could help in the initial stages of behavioral activation, scheduling activities that could alleviate depressive symptoms, it does not go far enough. While the app is getting people outside, they are still not fully present in their surroundings. In my practice, I work on mindfulness skills to help people enjoy the moment and stop focusing on the past or present. A key step in this goal is often putting your smartphone away.

No matter your opinions on Pokémon Go, the app is here to stay. And when this latest fad is over, it will simply be replaced by another app with similar results. If you’d like help dealing with an addiction to your smartphone, want to improve relationships with family and friends, or learn more about mindfulness, contact us at Cobb Psychotherapy.

Elizabeth Cobb, LCSW is a therapist in private practice in Manhattan and Brooklyn. Visit cobbpsychotherapy.com to learn more about how therapy can help.