Fake accounts, Erik Estrada from CHiPs, and more. In this episode, Andy and Adam are joined by guest Justin Bullard, Founder and CEO of MPath Productions to discuss the building of confident and resilient learners. What helps improve a child’s empathy skills? Would these skills be useful for a bullied child? Plus, the challenges and dangers of having children using social media are discussed.
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Hi, I'm Andy Psarianos.
Hello, I'm Emily Guille-Marrett.
Hi, I'm Adam Gifford.
This is the School of School Podcast. Welcome to the School of School Podcast.
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Hey everyone. Welcome back. Hey, this our first recording since the new year, so very exciting. And even more exciting than that, we've got Justin Bullard joining us today. So Justin, tell us a little bit about yourself.
Hi guys. I'm really happy to be here. Happy new year. My name is Justin Bullard. I'm the founder and CEO of Mpath Productions. We are a relatively new creative company. We're out to make original IP for kids that not just entertains, but actually creates empathy and promotes strong emotional intelligence in kids and parents as well. So it's my pleasure to be here. I'm really excited.
Pleased to have you here, actually, Justin. And yeah, happy year to one and all. Look, today, I know one of the things that that was suggested that we could talk about were tools to build resilient, confident children. I dare say that the circumstance and the recent history have probably led to that being such a crucial skill. The work that you do, obviously it encompasses empathy, but I think that in order to develop a well rounded each child, those other things are so important. What's your take on it? And also, does it link in with the work that you're doing?
Yeah, it's always the most important thing, I believe, to have kids that have a strong sense of self, they have confidence, they have that inner power that they need to navigate the world. And I think that, especially in modern days, given, not just the pandemic, which has been so crazily impactful in so many people's lives, and everyone's lives, really, it's been this growing crisis for a lot of years. I think that with MPath, we are really focusing on the, they call it the alpha generation, it's kids that are born after 2010. And this generation deals with different kind of pressures, so many things that we never really had to. One of the primary ones is this constant social media, they've been online since they were born, they've never known anything else. They don't remember a time when there wasn't a smartphone or a streaming service or social media everywhere. And I think it's more important than ever to really give kids the tools to navigate this world that we're in. And the work that I do is aimed at that group. I'm really trying to emphasise the things that I believe are really important for kids today and hopefully make them more successful and well adjusted and strong moving forward.
Sure. Look, I come into this as a dad, as an educator, who's passionate about education and passionate about, yeah, giving children the best chance that they can have. So I'm going to put you on the spot slightly.
Don't be too nervous. What are some of those tools? Because often in education, I've had this before, where we've talked in general terms that we must, you know, that children must be more confident or they must be more this, they must be more that, and then it's left at that. And that's quite a big ask for someone who, wearing my dad hat or wearing my teacher hat, or any other hat in school. What do you think in turn into those tools? First of all, just what are some of them? And how do we develop them? What are your thoughts?
Yeah, well, I think that... I appreciate being put on the spot, first of all, I think it's great. And it is really challenging. I think when it comes to developing emotional intelligence, it's not something that's as simple as say learning math, math is definitely not easy for some kids. But I think that it's one of those things that needs to be constantly developed. And there's some really amazing programmes, especially for preschool kids, that younger set, things like The Roots of Empathy, which is absolutely amazing. I think that it's such an important thing and that's taking a look at this baby and what do you think this baby feels? And just making kids think about that.
And for me, we're trying to aim a little bit older. I think what I would see is, I'm a dad as well, I've got an 11 year old and an 8 year old. And what I would see is that these lessons become a little less at the forefront. It becomes more about academics and performance and that sort of thing. So I really want something that aims a little bit older. And when it comes to tools, I think part of our curriculum is based on developing a compassionate theory of mind. And the idea of the theory of mind is the ability to attribute mental states to yourself and to others. And it's one of those foundational elements for social interaction. And what that is, is it gives you the strength to know that other people have certain intentions, that it's not necessarily you. We want to make so that kids can look at the things around them and the way that they're treated and the way that they're talked to and understand that it's not them, it's other people have these reasons for acting the way they do.
And when it comes to the actual tools for those things, we're about creating empathy through entertainment. So I want to give kids, one, in the types of lessons that our stories have, that there are strong messages about empathy and the different types of empathy. And two, have an interactive element. So we actually have a number of things that are interactive. So we have interactive workbooks, games, activities that actually reward these kinds of behaviours and encourage these kinds of behaviours. The ability to put a challenge in a fun way, in a gamified way to a kid of, what would you feel in this situation? How do you think they reacted? Why do you think they reacted? Putting these soft skills into kids' hands in an interactive way, I think is the best way to really reach them.
So I guess, if I could just jump in on that and just pick up on this for a second. So I'm guessing that one of the big shifts, certainly from when I was a child, and now talking about the children that are growing up today and-
When was that Adam? When were you a kid?
Oh, in the golden age, there was like, I'll give you a TV reference and let's see if you can place it, Andy, I watched CHiPs. Did you ever watch CHiPs, California Highway Patrol?
Ah, CHiPs. Yeah.
There you go. So that should give you-
Oh my God. He was the coolest guy in the world, as far as I was concerned.
... Of course it was. Yeah. But I met him once. He came out for a new fundraiser to New Zealand, it was one of the greatest days of my life. Very cool. So, yeah, so sort of-
Still to this day, still to this day, the greatest day of your life. Meeting Erik Estrada.
It's hard to beat, I'm telling you. But what I was going to say was is that, when I was growing up, so yeah, so I'm going to say, a similar age to the children that we may be talking about, the '80s, I guess, the way that people reacted, we saw it, because unless you did a hoax phone call, and I'm not endorsing any of these things, a hoax phone call, or a bit of graffiti on the back of the toilet wall, that said, "Adam can't play soccer," or whatever it might have been, but something a bit more racy than that, perhaps. I'm not sure if they're really going for it.
But I suppose the point being is that often you'd see people's responses. Whereas now there's the room for so much anonymity. You can address a huge audience without anyone knowing. Right? So I guess it must be far, well, in one sense, far easier to say things that are deeply hurtful, obscene, possibly illegal, all of those sorts of things that effectively you can't see the reaction, you don't know what happens ,that you can't sense that reaction. And so I guess, do you think that that makes it more difficult for, I don't know, for children, and adults too, I guess, to gauge the level of what they're doing? Because I might just write something and send it out there and I don't know.
Well, it's a spectator sport now, right? Everybody's watching, the stakes are so much higher now than they ever were. Because, if someone is bullying you in the school ground, well, maybe a couple people might say, maybe they'll tell their friends, you know what I mean? But it was more contained. But now it's like the evidence is there and everybody sees it and it can take off like a fireball. Right?
Absolutely. I mean social media, it's a whole crazy topic, the way that it impacts us, the conversations that we have with each other, the sort of political landscape, there's just, there's so much, the influence that troll armies have, and these outside forces that you can so easily put on a cloak of anonymity and come in and stir up a bunch of conflict. It's a huge wide ranging topic. And I think, just to bring it back to kids, kids are on social media more and more at younger and younger ages. And I think as a parent, it's very challenging because often you don't even know. You don't know what your kids are seeing. You don't know what your kids are necessarily interacting with. I think TikTok, for instance is actually awesome. I love TikTok. I think there's so much amazing content on there. And I think it's really great. But like any of this stuff, there's lots of avenues that you wouldn't want your kids going down. You don't want them to be on it unsupervised because there's a lot of adult content, there's a lot of dark content, there's scary stuff, there's all kinds of things.
And when it comes to things like bullying, like you said, Adam, for us, we had to worry about the schoolyard bully or the neighbour or just that really personal thing. And now there's a whole massive avenue for this sort of thing. And I've actually seen it with some family where kids had posted some terrible things online about a nephew of mine and it was awful. It was absolutely awful. And I think that is one of the reasons why I think it's more important than ever to really give kids that strong strength of character, that strong theory of mind that they have as much confidence in themselves and the things that they do and the things that they believe so that they're able to not let that stuff affect them as much. If you know what I mean?
Yeah. And I guess on the flip side of that, it's that difficulty and creating empathy for someone or a group of people you can't see, you've never met. You may not have any idea of the context in which they live. And that's a massive challenge, I guess. That's a huge challenge to be able to do that, to have empathy for the unknown, I guess.
It is. And Adam, it's really, really fascinating because I think that part of that, dealing with the idea that you hear something very hurtful, you read something that's very hurtful, maybe pointed right at you, there is a lot of power to be found in having empathy towards that person, towards the person that's doing the hurting, the person that's being the bully. You don't always know them, they're anonymous, but the ability to say, "Okay, well maybe they are in a terrible situation. Maybe they're acting this way because of something that's bad in their life. And that's not my fault. Maybe I shouldn't take it personally." There's a lot of power in that kind of thinking, because you can't take everything personal, you have to believe in yourself.
Hey Justin, hey, so you started your career working on really cool video games, mostly for not young kids, old, I guess, more mature kids-
Not young kids, yeah.
... and even young adults. Yeah. And then you had your own kids. Right? And then something happened. And then you started MPath. What's that all about?
Yeah. My career, I've always been artistic. I was a kid growing up in New Mexico, in Roswell, New Mexico, which I mentioned to you guys.
And I was always very artistic. It was my dream to work in video games. And I moved to Vancouver, British Columbia here in Canada, and went to animation school, amazing experience and started working in games. It was like a dream come true. And I cut my teeth on games like NHL, for Electronic Arts, which was amazing. And then I started working for Rockstar Games, which was a great experience, a very challenging experience. But what I found there was that Rockstar is very much about character and storytelling. And through that, and then further along in my career, I was able to really focus on story and cinematics and storytelling.
And I think that when it comes to storytelling, empathy is crucially important. It's, are you able to understand where a character is coming from, what their motivations are, why they do you and say the things they do? And then that link between the player and the story character in a game is a little more nebulous, but it's really important. You're, you're not just watching a character and understanding them, you're driving a character. And I found that to be really fascinating when it comes to the power of empathy. And I absolutely loved it, but I was making a lot of mature games, things that were really not meant for kids that were 16 and above, mature rated games, which had a lot of death and violence and action and drug references and that sort of thing.
And then I had the opportunity to work on some lighter fare. I'm a kid at heart, it's a podcast so you can't see, but you guys can see my office. It's full of toys and fun stuff. And this is the kind of thing I love. And then when I had kids, everything changes. It's that universal story, you have kids and everything changes, your perspective changes. What's important. Why are you now doing things? It's not about you, it's about them, et cetera, et cetera. And I found that I wasn't really able to share the work that I was doing with my kids. They thought it was cool I worked in video games, but I couldn't show it to them because it was too violent.
And that was one of those first steps that pushed me towards really following my dream, chasing my bliss, as it were, making stuff that they could see, they could be proud of. And when it comes to MPath and Alpha Squad, which is our first original IP, they're my target audience. I have two daughters and I make this stuff for them. I want them to love it. So, it's been really great. It's exciting because I get to share it with them and it's exciting because it's what I really want to be doing.
So that's cool. That's interesting. So it really came from, you saw the need, right, out there? Were your kids, were they struggling in any kind of way with emotional issues? What drove you to... because you're not just making cool tools for kids. Right? You seem to be on a mission. Right? You've got this, "We got to build empathy in the kids." Right. "There's got to be stuff out there that helps children develop that." What drove you to do that in particular?
Yeah. Our tagline is, "Creating the world's most empathic generation." That's something that I think is super important and-
... Yeah, I know. It is. I think that I was really fortunate, my kids, I think, are generally quite well adjusted, and I do my best to be a good dad. And growing up, I had a bit more of a troubled childhood. And so I have this mission to myself to be the best dad that I can possibly be. My wife is an absolutely amazing woman and human and she's absolutely incredible. So my kids are very lucky. I think they have two great parents. And we always try to listen to them and understand them and empathise with them.
And what I was really seeing and what really started to give me pause was, as they were getting a little bit older... When they're young, honestly, it's pretty easy to protect them. They're not doing a lot on their own. They're not watching things on their own. They're not doing this. They're not doing that. You get to mould them. And as they get a little bit older, they start to spend more time exploring on their own. And so thankfully my kids haven't necessarily had a lot of those issues, knock on wood, but I could see it out there. And I could see especially given the political landscape was something that was stressing me out a lot, that "Us versus them. These guys are monsters. No, these guys are monsters." You could see this starting to make its way into everything. And they started to really start seeing that sort of thing. "Who's Trump?" It was everywhere.
And so for me, it put me down a path of, "Okay, what is going on here? And should I be worried?" And clearly there was a lot to worry about. And so I set out, one, to keep them on a strong path, and two, to help other kids that might be in situations like I was in as a kid, think kids that don't have that amazing support system. And it became really even more crucially important for me during the pandemic. I think that forced separation, everybody was already becoming isolated because of the world that we live in. But my God, things like screen time, unsupervised screen time, just absolutely skyrocketed in the pandemic. And so I at think it's more important than ever, especially when it comes to screen time, to make that as positive as possible to give content and lessons to parents and kids that is safe and positive and good, something that parents can trust and kids can love.
Justin, can I just jump in and ask, the content that you are writing, because like you've mentioned, and you referenced Trump and there's probably another few things that have been referenced way that, but no, but I'm just saying that in my lifetime, and I read the news a lot and try to keep up to date with things, there's been certain events and certain things that in my eyes anyway, have been quite polarising. Even more obviously polarising than the world already is. I can imagine the temptation to have that filter into your content. There must be a temptation there to, obviously you want to reflect current situations, but I guess there's been good and bad themes or different themes or different understandings of different people throughout history. But when you are writing the content, have you just got core messages that you stick to and you base those around a really good story or is it more reflective of, I guess, current affairs?
Yeah. I won't it's not so much reflective of current affairs in a necessarily direct way. Maybe it is in a response to certain current affairs. I certainly don't try to have any political messages baked into the content. Really it's about those core skills, developing that compassionate theory of mind, giving you altruistic behaviours. I think that all of this stuff that we see in the world and all of the division, so much of it could be healed by a little bit of empathy. Honestly, I think less people watching less news, spending less time on social media, because these things are designed to incite. They're designed to divide, they're designed to make you pick a side and get passionate about a thing. That's the whole point of it, right? It's about engagement, keeping you engaged in this battle. And the more that there's an us versus them, the more engagement and negative passion people pour into these things.
They thrive off tension. Yeah. They thrive off...
Yeah, absolutely. I mean, that's no secret, there's a reason that you see the things that you see on Facebook, because Facebook knows that's what you want to see. And man, there's so many weird examples, I read an article about Star Wars, just to go off top, and the movie, The Last Jedi came out and man, the fan base split apart, and there was all this anger and there's a bunch of racist stuff coming out about one of the lead actresses. And it turned out that there was something like 100,000 fake accounts that were coming from one city block in Russia that were very anti, this Kelly Tran character. And it's like, oh it's not just the nature of it, it's actual other influences that are coming in and trying to divide people. It's pretty scary. It's like there's this push.
And just to kind of come back to the idea of what we want to do, it's like, we want to have our stories be about understanding each other, using empathy, using those skills to solve problems and keep yourself strong. It's great. And then, I mean, at a higher level, I think that there is so much power in entertainment and screen time is not going away. Especially the last few years, you read some statistics, it's like screen time in kids and adults is up 350%, 400% and it's like, holy crap. So I think it's super important for people like me and everybody to make that content and make that screen time as positive as possible.
Thank you for joining us on The School of School Podcast.