Marc Brackett is the director of the Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence, a faculty fellow at the Edward Zigler Center in Child Development and Social Policy, and a senior research scientist in the psychology department. He is the cocreator of RULER, an evidence-based program aimed at improving school classroom environments. He has previously received the Joseph E. Zins Award for his research on social and emotional learning. He is currently working as a research consultant with the Facebook Protect and Care team, which strives to create a respectful online atmosphere for Facebook users and decrease online bullying. The News spoke with Brackett about his role in the project.
Q Within your research, how are you finding communication impacted in a virtual environment, and how can you create empathy without actual contact?
A I think that our goal for the work we do on Facebook is focused primarily to help kids navigate the unpleasant experiences that they have. So if they view stuff that they don’t like on their timeline, they can try to get it removed by reporting it. And in that reporting, we help kids by giving them research-based strategies to navigate the experience; for example, teaching them about compassionate communication in terms of making a request to the offender to take down the offensive content. That’s the primary content I have been doing with them with my colleagues.
Q Are we going to be seeing these sorts of modifications in the near future?
A They are on Facebook already, so they are all available to any child who sees a photo or a message that they perceive as being unpleasant. They can press the little “share” button on the corner, and then it says, “I don’t like this” or “I want this removed.” Then there is a process they can go through that helps them first[ly] identify the problem, secondly identify the emotion associated with the problem and thirdly identify a possible solution or strategy to help manage the problem.
Q How did you structure your study to test the effectiveness of the methods you just talked about?
A What we are looking for is feedback from kids that this experience is helpful or unhelpful. We are also looking to see if there are differences in completion rates of kids filling out these report forms when we ask them questions, and the way that we planned [testing that] at first was just standardized questions. And what we are finding is that when you ask kids to describe their feelings and provide them with social messages to respond to the unpleasant experiences, they’re more likely to send those messages out.
Q You have been involved in a variety of initiatives. What has been your favorite, and how have your previous experiences fed into this Facebook project?
A I think for me the most important work we do is the work on emotional intelligence at schools — how we train children and teachers to be more emotionally intelligent. And we’ve done randomized control trials in schools looking at the impact of emotional intelligence training on academic performance, on teacher-student relationships and on classroom environment. [That research] has shown that, indeed, providing schools with evidence-based approaches like ours, called RULER, does make a difference in these areas. [That research] is the most rewarding.
Q Do you think the options given through Facebook will have the same effect as the training you gave in schools?
A Yes. So, we used the trainings that we do in schools as a background or backbone … The work that we did for Facebook was rooted in all of the experiences research has presented to us.
Q Did you find any unexpected results?
A For the work with Facebook, the thing that was most interesting was that teenagers, when they have unpleasant experiences, don’t want to reach out to their parents. They really want to solve it on their own or work with a friend.
Q Considering the growing presence of cyberbullying, do you think this project will be able to curb that issue, or do you think this project addresses a different problem?
A No. Right now we also are building a whole battery of resources to help decrease bullying. But I think importantly you’ll see [in an upcoming paper] that most of the unpleasant experiences that kids have on Facebook are not as powerful or as mean as people think they are — they are mostly little things like a stupid photo that someone wants removed, as opposed to someone being threatened or stalked.
Q Do you think that teenagers are at a higher risk of miscommunication or that it is just more publicized?
A No, it’s true. I think the adolescent brain is in a place where [adolescents] are easily excitable and when that’s the case, sound decision making becomes more complicated. So I think that teaching these [emotional intelligence] strategies and skills to adolescents is critically important.