Software makes cyberbullies think twice
It was 2013. Trisha Prabhu was a 13 year old from suburban Chicago. She came home from school. She read a news story. It was about an 11-year-old girl who had committed suicide. In the months before her death, the girl had been repeatedly cyberbullied.
"I was shocked, heart-broken and angry," says Prabhu. "I knew I had to do something to stop this from ever happening again."
So Prabhu came up with a cyber-solution for cyberbullying. She invented a software called ReThink. It scans social media messages for offensive content. It gives the writer a chance to reconsider whether he or she really wants to post. The program can be installed by parents on home computers. I can be installed by teachers on school computers. It uses context-sensitive word screening to flag messages for content.
For Prabhu, ReThink is personal. She too had been cyberbullied in her younger years. She received nasty messages 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 indeed a serious and 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 principle that the adolescent brain is like a "car with no brakes," Prabhu says. "It's all too well-known that adolescents make impulsive, rash decisions."
There is well-established research on the prefrontal cortex. It is a region of the brain important for self-control and decision-making. Research shows it doesn't fully develop until a person is about 25 years old. This is likely a major factor behind teenagers' sometimes irresponsible and risky decisions. These include texting and driving or fighting. It can also include simply neglecting homework in favor of hanging out with friends.
Prabhu has received numerous accolades 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 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 has also created a free ReThink app for smartphones. She's rolled out a ReThink "ambassador" program 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 from people who know firsthand the trauma cyberbullying can cause. They come from parents whose children have committed suicide after repeated cyberbullying. They come from police officers who deal with cyberbullying on a criminal level. They come from school counselors and administrators. They struggle to help cyberbullied students. And then there are the victims themselves. One particularly memorable note Prabhu received was not from a teenager. It was from an adult. She was a retired teacher who had been bullied for years 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 to test it. I started to post "I hate you" 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 by "Don't say things that you may regret later!" ReThink has a high sensitivity for bad words. I started a post with a four-letter 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" without getting a ReThink message. And somehow "nobody likes you, you idiot" also snuck through.
ReThink is clearly not yet a perfect tool for capturing all cyber cruelty. But it does offer teens a second chance and they tend to take it. Research was conducted with ReThink. It showed teens change their mind about posting the hurtful messages 93 percent of the time.
Prabhu ultimately hopes to have ReThink installed for free on school computers and 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.