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Electronic communication channels aren’t great for expressing nuanced emotions, writes April Dembosky in San Francisco. Tenderness, winks or humour are poorly captured by emoticons. But it’s unmistakable when someone is being nasty.
Online bullying has become a concern in recent years, on a variety of social networking sites from Facebook to Twitter to Tumblr. Fifteen per cent of teens on social networks say they have been the target of others being mean, and 88 per cent say they have witnessed cruelty on such sites, according to the Pew Research Center.
Several states in the US have written laws to protect children from cyber-bullies, and most social networking companies have policies that allow users to block messages from bullies or report instances of threatening online behaviour.
But Facebook is taking it a step further – by looking at ways to stop people from posting hurtful messages in the first place.
Marc Brackett, a research scientist in psychology at Yale University, is working with the company on altering the flow of the site so that children will “think twice before they push that button and send a message that may be harmful or hurtful”.
That could be in the form of a screen that pops up before a note is posted, asking the child to take a deep breath before posting, or checking with him or her directly if they are sure they want to post. The research is still in its early phases and the study will be made public in July.
“The basic idea is to teach children that what they say and how they say it has an impact on what other people think and feel,” Brackett says. “We can help them be more mindful, self-aware and socially aware.” He has been working on developing such “emotional intelligence” in the offline world as well, mainly in schools. The training he does with children always begins with instructing the adults in their lives first, and, in this case, that includes the Facebook engineers.
“I’m the ‘feelings master’ to these guys,” he says. “These are all the kids who were nerds and likely bullied in middle school. Finally someone is acknowledging all the experiences they had.” In true nerd fashion, the engineers will repackage Brackett’s emotional lessons into computer code. Leave it to Facebook to take a scientific approach to being nice.