Software makes cyberbullies think twice
It was 2013. Trisha Prabhu was 13 years old. She lived in suburban Chicago. She came home from school. She read a news story. It was about an 11-year-old girl. The girl had committed suicide. The girl had been cyberbullied over and over.
"I was shocked, heart-broken and angry," says Prabhu. "I knew I had to do something to stop this from ever happening again."
Prabhu came up with a cyber-solution. It is for cyberbullying. She invented a software. It is called ReThink. It scans social media messages. It looks for offensive content. It gives the writer a chance to review if he or she really wants to post. The program can be installed by parents. It can go on home computers. I can be installed by teachers. It can go on school computers. It uses context-sensitive word screening. It flags messages for content.
ReThink is personal for Prabhu. She was cyberbullied in her younger years. She received nasty messages. They were about her clothes.
"I'm what you'd call thick-skinned. So I just brushed it off and moved on," Prabhu says. "But after reading about this story, I realized that many adolescents were really affected by these offensive messages. Especially if the cyberbullying was repeated and targeted."
Cyberbullying is a serious problem. It is a growing problem. Research shows 43 percent of kids have experienced cyberbullying. Some 70 percent of students report seeing "frequent" online bullying. Bullying victims are up to nine times more likely to consider suicide.
ReThink works on the belief that the teenage brain is like a "car with no brakes," Prabhu says. "It's all too well-known that adolescents make impulsive, rash decisions."
There is research on the prefrontal cortex. It is a region of the brain. It is important for self-control. And it is important for decision-making. Research shows it doesn't fully develop until a person is about 25 years old. This is likely a big factor behind teenagers' sometimes irresponsible and risky decisions. These include texting and driving. It includes fighting. It can also include neglecting homework in favor of hanging out with friends.
Prabhu has received numerous awards for her work. She was a global finalist in the Google Science Fair. She was selected to exhibit at the White House Science Fair. She received a Global Anti-Bullying Hero award. It was from Auburn University. There were also other honors.
Prabhu has long been fascinated by computer science. She first began learning to code at age eleven. It was through a local technology education program for kids. She created a free ReThink app. It is for smartphones. She's rolled out a ReThink "ambassador" program. It is for schools. Student representatives spread anti-cyberbullying messages to their classmates. Students are invited to take an anti-cyberbullying pledge.
Prabhu has received multiple messages. They come from people who know firsthand the trauma cyberbullying can cause. They come from parents. Their children have committed suicide after repeated cyberbullying. They come from police officers. They deal with cyberbullying on a criminal level. They come from school counselors. They come from administrators. They struggle to help cyberbullied students.
And then there are the victims themselves. One memorable note Prabhu received was not from a teenager. It was from an adult. She was a retired teacher. She had been bullied for years. It was by an adult adopted daughter. "Trisha," the woman wrote, "ReThink would not only help adolescents, it would help adults too."
I downloaded ReThink to my iPhone. It tested it. I started to post "I hate you." It was to a Facebook wall. I had no intentions of actually posting it. A ReThink bubble popped up. "Let's change these words to make it positive," it suggested. "You're a fat," I began. I was interrupted. "Don't say things that you may regret later!" ReThink has a high sensitivity for bad words. I started a post. It had a bad word. The ReThink bubble showed up. It asked "Are these words really you?"
The program did not catch everything. I was able to type "You're ugly and stupid." A ReThink message did not pop up. And somehow "nobody likes you, you idiot" also snuck through.
ReThink is clearly not yet a perfect tool. It doesn't capture all cyber cruelty. But it does offer teens a second chance. They tend to take it. Research was conducted with ReThink. It showed teens change their mind about posting hurtful messages. They change it 93 percent of the time.
Prabhu hopes to have ReThink installed for free on school computers. And also in libraries. She wants to see this across the country. And even around the world. She has plans to develop the program in multiple languages.
"I look forward to a day when we have conquered cyberbullying," she says.