Ryan Brannon conceptualized the My New Leaf app while a student in the Management Information Systems program. Photo: Keith Boyer
Team’s App Puts Recovery in Reach for Young Addicts
As much as we’d like to think they are, not all teenagers and young adults are having the time of their lives. Some are having a problem with alcohol or drugs, struggling against triggers and cravings, their lives on the edge of a downward trajectory. According to federal data, 17 percent of young adults age 18-25 and 5 percent of children age 12–17 experience substance dependence or abuse.
Ryan Brannon, a May graduate of the Management Information Systems program, is concerned about what he calls an addiction epidemic among millennials.
Brannon has conceptualized an innovative app, called My New Leaf, with a game-like, rewards-based approach to addiction recovery. His vision came to life when he transferred to IUP and gained access to leading-edge expertise in technology, cybersecurity, addiction treatment, entrepreneurship, and communications design.
Brannon and a team of IUP students created a model that has caught the attention of addiction professionals in Pennsylvania all the way to the Department of Drug and Alcohol Programs. In April, the team, advised by management professor Joette Wisnieski, won the $10,000 first-place prize at Pennsylvania’s State System of Higher Education Business Plan Competition.
The gamified approach raises the question—can recovery be a bit fun?
Gamification is an emerging area of health care that explores whether smartphone tools can motivate and enable people to manage their health conditions and fitness. The idea is that incorporating some positive entertainment can make behavior change more appealing.
My New Leaf is designed specifically for substance abusers age 14–24 who “recognize they have a problem and want to change their behavior but aren’t ready for traditional methods, such as a 12-step program,” Brannon said. He describes them as a largely “invisible” population of addicts.
Brannon believes a gamified app makes sense for young millennials, who have grown up with gaming. “Digital identities are becoming our comfort zones. And we’re always on our phones,” he said.
Having a positive, personalized, private tool that’s as readily in reach as a smartphone may make the difference in engaging a young addict in change.
“Other apps are bare bones, used a few days, and then dropped,” Brannon said. “I wanted to make something substantial.”
My New Leaf members will be able to create a profile of baseline data, including their motivations for substance use and for recovery. They can grow from a seed to a sapling to a tree by completing a variety of daily activities that help them improve self-monitoring and -management behaviors, such as recognizing and coping with craving triggers.
Feedback is instantaneous, and members can earn both virtual rewards (e.g., swag for their tree) and real ones (e.g., recovery books). A daily randomly issued award is also part of the fun factor.
A panic section includes supportive and interactive features, such as contacting a member-identified circle of supporters or a local certified recovery specialist to help members through urgent trigger or relapse situations.
To Brannon’s knowledge, no other addiction recovery app is as robust. Elements are based on addiction treatment and game theory research and best practice, as identified by professionals in the field. These professionals include Ryan’s father, Ray Brannon, conferences and training director at IUP’s Mid-Atlantic Addiction Research and Training Institute (MARTI); sociology faculty members Alex Heckert, associate director of MARTI, Christian Vaccaro M’05, research associate at MARTI, and John Anderson; and a board of directors comprising addiction professionals and technology experts at organizations throughout western Pennsylvania.
The team gave privacy the highest priority, Ryan Brannon said. “We’ve worked to create a safe, positive environment. Member trust is essential.” Members will use a random ID—their e-mail and password won’t be retained—and will decide whether to allow family and friends access to the app and inclusion in their supporters circle.
Ryan Brannon, standing, with Ray Brannon, left, and Colton Provias, in the team’s office space in Saltsburg. Photo: Keith Boyer
He incorporated programming, networking, and technology policy expertise he gained in courses and independent studies with MIS faculty member Pankaj Chaudhary. “Pankaj was my game changer,” he said. “His classes opened my eyes to the capabilities of the Internet to change our social constructs.”
“MIS is an applied discipline,” Chaudhary said. “We teach programming and discuss technology in a holistic fashion, studying its impact on society—people, process, organizations, and policies, such as the political and regulatory context.”
In addition to Ryan Brannon, CEO/executive director, and Ray Brannon, COO, the team includes Colton Provias, CIO and audio engineer; Kyle Froehlich ’14, video engineer; Sarah Orefice ’14, graphic designer; Evan Toman ’14, photographer; and students Emily Ager, operations manager, Wayne Pawlowski, marketing and sales, and Alex Bieger, social media director.
They’ve incorporated as a nonprofit and leased a small office space in Saltsburg. Currently they work part-time or on a volunteer and as-needed basis on the project.
The next step: Raising the capital to build a full-time staff and begin programming iOS, Android, and desktop beta versions.
In June, Ryan Brannon attended the elite Thiel Foundation Summit on a fellowship he earned with Anderson’s help and exchanged ideas with other young social entrepreneurs. He also built support for the app through online campaigns to raise funds and awareness.
My New Leaf has already attracted attention on social media: Its Twitter account has more than 1,900 followers and landed Ryan Brannon a guest spot on Internet radio station LA Talk Radio in March.
Through MARTI, the team has made presentations to numerous community organizations throughout western Pennsylvania. Gary Tennis, secretary of the state Department of Drug and Alcohol Programs, has scheduled a meeting with the Brannons to learn more.
“People in the addiction treatment field around the world are telling us, ‘We want to get our hands on this app as soon as it’s ready,’” Ray Brannon said.
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