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DALLAS (CBSDFW.COM) — A parent’s drive to protect is a powerful motivator: just ask Ernest Jouriles, PhD and Renee McDonald, PhD. A decade ago, the husband and wife team of researchers in the Psychology department at Southern Methodist University saw their daughter Nicola’s approaching adolescence as a huge incentive to begin work on a training program to help young women diffuse—or at least re-direct– sexually charged situations.

But, early results failed to engage the teenage mind. So why not tap into the video game generation’s love of gadgets?

“We were thinking, ‘can we do something with virtual reality that could help teens basically practice skills to get out of situations that are potentially difficult—that might be dangerous’,” says Dr. Jouriles, co-author on the research, clinical psychologist, professor and chair of the SMU Department of Psychology.

Here’s how it works: students are first taught assertiveness skills. Those skills are then tested during a real time ‘virtual reality’ session. A male research assistant controls the avatar and acts as an aggressor. Of course, the goggles and monitor give up the gig—this exercise in assertiveness isn’t real. But, research assistant and SMU Senior Katie Bridges says it certainly feels real. “You start feeling uneasy,” says Bridges.

Students first learn assertiveness skills. Then those skills are tested during a real time ‘virtual reality’ session. A male research assistant controls the avatar and acts as an aggressor.

“It’s very brief,” says Dr. McDonald, co-author on the research, “which is unusual, and has such a strong effect on victimization rates.” Dr. McDonald is a clinical psychologist, professor and associate dean of research and academic affairs for SMU’s Dedman College. “We’ve been able to reduce them by half among women who go through the program.”

Lorelei Simpson Rowe, PhD, is the lead author on the study, a clinical psychologist, and associate professor in the department. She says she taught young women self-defense during her undergraduate days at Michigan State and says the ‘virtual reality’ training is a perfect extension of her passion to help strengthen young women.

“Watching young women, who begin by saying ‘please’ and ‘thank you’, to be able to look somebody in the eye and say ‘no, I’m not interested! Stop asking me!’ is for me, the most exciting part,” says Dr. Simpson Rowe.

Still, the team readily admits that the virtual assertiveness training is only part of the solution. Ultimately, they say, the responsibility for violence and aggression rests with the perpetrator.

However, as parents, Drs. Jouriles and McDonald say they were unwilling to wait for those solutions. They wanted to equip young women—including their own—with potentially life-saving skills.

“You can be nice and strong,” say Dr. McDonald. “But, be strong. And if nice doesn’t work, be strong and don’t worry about being nice. Get out of the situation.”

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