Now more than ever, we need to teach our children empathy: to see others, besides friends and families, as worthy of understanding and compassion. But how? Tinybop, the Brooklyn-based app design studio, believes the answer is to encourage kids to look inside themselves. The result, Me, is a storytelling app that encourages kids to more deeply understand their own lives and feelings.
Me encourages kids to delve within themselves organically. When the app is first loads, kids start off by creating a cartoon likeness of themselves out of a palette of eyes, mouths, skin tones, hair colors, glasses, and more. From there, they can pick their favorite color, which themes the rest of the app. Then a central dashboard reveals their cartoon avatar, with bubbles floating out of his or her head. Tapping the bubbles prompts kids to tell the app more about themselves. For example, one app might encourage them to take a picture of their pet, and give it some pizazz by dropping stickers on top. Another might ask them to draw what they do before bed, or what they think a cool robot looks like.
Me also asks kids to explore their emotional states. Early on while using the app, a dark storm cloud with peering red eyes popped up over my head. After I tapped on it, Me asked me what color made me think of fear, then whisked me to another space in my emotional spectrum (themed in that color, of course), where it asked me to answer questions about fear. Would I take a picture of a book that scared me? Would I draw a picture of myself when I'm scared? Would I draw a monster? And so on. By asking kids to confront their fears in a fun, interactive way, the app hopes that its users will develop a deeper understanding of themselves.
In all, Me provides kids with hundreds of prompts about their feelings, their friends, their families, their school, and more. "The idea came from my eight-year-old, who brought home a ‘map of his heart’ one day from school," says Tinybop founder Raul Gutierrez. "The kids had been asked to divide a picture of their hearts proportionally into the things they loved." Looking at his own child's crudely drawn heart map, Gutierrez realized that this was more than just a fun exercise, but a rich tool that could be used to teach kids more about themselves. "At a time when teachers are reporting an increase in bullying and anxiety among kids in their classrooms our goal with Me is to help kids better understand themselves, the world around them, their feelings, and the feelings of those around them," he says. "Research suggests that the better kids understand themselves, the more able they are to be empathetic and understand others. Teaching empathy can help combat bullying, peer cruelty, and the mental health epidemic."
One thing's for sure. We need more apps that can teach kids empathy right now.
The day after the election, Gutierrez says that a child in his son's school went up to an African-American teacher who had never expressed any political opinions whatsoever and began mockingly chanting: "Trump! Trump! Trump!" The kid wouldn't stop. "It's hard to imagine being in that teacher's shoes," says Gutierrez. "What do you do when the name of the president-elect has become a sort of epithet? What impact does this have on all the kids involved?" Gutierrez admits he doesn't have the answers, but self-awareness and conversation is where it starts, two things Me is designed to promote among kids.
"Maybe . . . just maybe in cases like this an app [like Me can] helps us resist the normalization of hate speech," Gutierrez says. "Conversation helps us not underestimate the consequence of words. It’s a drop in the ocean but we feel that all those little conversations can add up to something much bigger."
Available now for iPhone and iPad, Me can be purchased from the App Store for $2.99.