Help for teens being bullied on Facebook

Don’t like a post on Facebook? Wish you weren’t tagged making that face? Being cyber-bullied?

Yale research scientist Marc Brackett is here to help.

Brackett, 43, a child psychologist who was bullied himself in middle school, is helping Facebook develop better tools for young teens to use to flag problematic posts, deal with conflicts and navigate the sometimes treacherous waters of social networking.

Facebook asked Brackett to be a consultant on their anti-bullying project because of his work on bullying as director of the Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence.

“It’s just that hundreds of thousands of kids per month are reporting being cyber-bullied,” Brackett said. “Facebook wanted to find ways to help kids who were being cyber-bullied.”

Brackett, together with other Yale researchers and Facebook engineers, have developed a system that enables 13- and 14-year-olds to communicate more socially and thoughtfully to resolve conflicts and get help.

“We’ve created a system to help them more easily to report their experience, feel comfortable about reporting it, express their feelings and make suggestions about the best way to manage it,” Brackett said.

Until now, Facebook users often would respond to an objectionable post or photo by either “unfriending” or blocking the person or by clicking the “Report” button on Facebook.

The new system, which Facebook has begun to introduce, helps teach these teens how to stay in the relationship by giving them the social skills to address problems and encourages them to find help offline from a trusted adult.

“They are learning how to communicate with that person so they can problem-solve instead of just dismissing them,” Brackett said.

How it works

The teen user starts by clicking a button that says, “This post is a problem.”  The system then guides them through a flow system with multiple-choice questions designed to give them advice and support.

“It just says things like: ‘What happened?’ ‘How does it make you feel?’ ‘Here’s what you can say to get them to take it down,’ “ Brackett said.

The system has pre-written responses the teen can use to react to the post and take the action requested.

For more benign problems, the new system suggests messages teens can send in response, such as, “I really don’t like this photo because it’s really inappropriate. Would you please take it down?”

For more serious cases, such as threatening or harassment, it suggests that they talk to a trusted adult and to not be alone with the person who made the threats.

“We wanted to guide them in reaching out to somebody they trusted for advice because sometimes you just can’t figure it out for yourself,” said Robin Stern, Brackett’s partner in the Facebook project at the Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence.

Getting the teens to figure out how they feel emotionally about the problem is a key part of the process, Brackett said.

“The idea is that if we know the emotion they are experiencing and the challenge they are facing, we can provide more nuanced support for them. For instance, if they are feeling angry, versus embarrassed, there are different approaches we’d take,” Brackett said.

Brackett said he was bullied when he was 13. As a middle school student in New Jersey, he said his fingers were slammed in his locker. He hated school and was consumed by a fear of bullying. These unpleasant memories never really went away. They fueled his desire to become an academic devoted preventing bullying and finding ways to make school a better experience for students.

When designing the new Facebook system, Brackett and his team met with focus groups to find out how to make Facebook a better environment.

“Kids told us they wanted to feel like they were having a conversation with Facebook, that someone really cared,” Stern said. “They wanted language to help sort things out and wanted support. What we did was to give kids language.”

In developing the new system, the team came up with adolescent-friendly language and descriptions tailored to the 13- to 14-year-old age group. The structure is based on the concept of emotional intelligence — the ability to recognize, understand, label, express and regulate emotions.

When they tested the new system, the Yale researchers and Facebook engineers found that serious bullying problems were actually fairly rare. Results showed that in more than half of the 400,000 responses, the teens simply did not like a post or objected to a photo. Only 1.6 percent reported a bullying problem, Brackett said.

This is just the first step in Brackett’s work with Facebook. He is now developing a similar system for older teens and college students and trying out the program in other English-speaking countries, including England and Australia.

“He’s an amazing ambassador for this work, an amazing visionary and leader and thinker. He has infused social media with emotional intelligence in a way that impacts hundreds of thousands of kids,” Stern said.

Helping parents and teachers speak to their kids

In September, Facebook also will launch a new Help Center that Bracket helped design that will give parents, teachers, guidance counselors more resources and tips for how to talk to kids.

“If your kid is being bullied, it will help you find the best way to talk to your kid,” Brackett said. “For example, the thing not to say is: ‘I thought I told you not to be on Facebook,’ which is what a lot parents do. We want to help parents have a better conversation.”

A better approach would be to say something like, ‘I’m so sorry this happened. Tell me exactly what happened so I can help you out,’ Brackett said.

 

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