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Columnist Anne Collier On Facebook’s Social Empathy Consultants

By on January 30, 2013
Domestic, K-12, Parents, Required, Technology

flickr and facebook Anssi Koskinen via Compfight

A social media company’s social-emotional learning

By Anne Collier, Guest Columnist

One of the fascinating impacts of our now very social media environment is technology companies having to learn a whole lot about the best and worst of humanity – and, for their own and their users’ sake – about how to foster the best of it. Facebook, for example, has an engineering team working with empathy researchers, and this has direct impact on young users’ social experiences, wherever FB’s embedded in them.

Psychologist Marc Brackett at Yale University, who developed a social-emotional learning (SEL) program for schools, has been working with Facebook on its social-reporting tools for 13- and 14-year-olds. [Social reporting is basically abuse reporting with additional options to "report" offending content or behavior to people who can help with the problem in "real life," which is typically the context of whatever goes on in Facebook.] What Facebook has set up for young teens, with the help of Marc and other researchers, is not only a social reporting process (which it calls a “flow”), but one that actually teaches them social literacy as they go through it.

Learning social skills by using social media

Facebook’s social reporting flow “teaches some SEL,” Marc emailed me, “because it encourages them to think about the feelings they have about their experiences” and how best to express those feelings. The reporting flow also “warns them against doing things that might make things worse and provides text that might help reduce the intensity of the situation,” Marc added.

That’s important because it not only increases social-emotional literacy but also helps to resolve situations. It can do that because, first of all, so much of what happens in social media has to do with what’s going on in offline life and social circles – so people in offline life typically help resolve problems in social sites better than the sites themselves ever could, once those people understand what’s going on. Second, not much of the abuse reporting that social sites get is about anything really nasty, Facebook has found. For example, the vast majority of photos reported for take-down are reported because the user just didn’t like the way s/he looked in the photo. In fact, in most cases of problem photos, no harm was meant, and the friends who post them usually want to know if there’s a problem with them. So, once FB started social reporting so that people could actually ask their friends to take down a photo, it found that “60% of the people who were asked to remove a photo felt positive about the person who sent the request,” FB reports in its blog post about its 3rd-annual Compassion Research Day this week.

Facebook’s learning process

In social reporting’s early days (about two years ago), when a user chose the option to ask the photo poster to take the photo down, FB just provided a box for the reporter to type in a message to the poster. It soon found that only 20% of those users would fill in the box and send the request to the poster. But after FB “filled in the box,” so to speak – offered users options for explaining why they want the photo taken down – the percentage of users who reported to the person who posted the photo went up to 60%. “If you give them the right language, an emotionally rich language [but also simple and conversational], that number goes up,” FB explains (see what they mean in the screenshot in this post).

Facebook has also discovered that, “if a 13-to-14-year-old teen needs support from someone they trust, they most likely turn to older teenagers.” That’s borne out in academic research too (e.g., see this). But social reporting allows them to report to peers or adults (whether or not they’re Facebook members), as well as Facebook itself.

No shortcuts

Finally, these developments teach us all one more thing: Not to develop a false sense of security about how much a customer service team at a distant corporate office can understand, much less resolve, problems that arise in people’s offline lives and relationships. Certainly it’s baseline corporate responsibility for them to do whatever’s possible, and certainly users can be blocked and offensive content deleted, but – in each case – we need to think about how much either technology or third parties can resolve a conflict (when we were kids, Mom or Dad didn’t call the phone company when arguments broke out on the phone). Every case is unique, and sometimes it does help to get someone’s bad behavior out of our face, but we can’t get people banned from everybody else’s profiles.

People need to remember, too, that there are always other media properties and devices where determined “haters” can pop up and carry on. Nothing is more effective than addressing issues with the people involved. Unfortunately, there are no easy workarounds for that. That’s why we keep saying that safety in social media is, well, social – a shared responsibility. It’s also mostly local, where kids are concerned, because the real context for what happens in Facebook, on phones, in Snapchat or Instagram is usually school life, the epicenter of their social lives.

Related links

* Bullying prevention experts have identifying bystanders as key to defusing bullying situations and helping targets. So, if you want to understand better why people hesitate to speak up or help, here’s some insight from the researchers at University of California, Berkeley, who work with Facebook.
* For more detail on Facebook’s social reporting, there’s a great interview that Facebook engineer Arturo Bejar, who started FB’s work on empathy in digital media, gave my ConnectSafely co-director Larry Magid on this page at the Huffington Post.
* More for parents on social-emotional learning here, here (on how it improves academic performance as well as social skills), and here (on viral kindness).
* “Anti-social media companies will be obsolete
* “First look at Facebook’s ‘social [abuse] reporting‘” (March 2011)

Anne Collier is editor and founder of NetFamilyNews. She co-directs, a Web-based interactive forum and information site for teens, parents, educators, and everybody interested in the impact of the social Web on youth and vice versa. She co-chaired the Obama administrations Online Safety & Technology Working Group, which in June 2010 delivered its report to Congress, “Youth Safety on a Living Internet,” a subject on which Anne frequently speaks. She currently serves on Facebook’s Safety Advisory Board and serves as an advisor to other organizations on the topic.



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