NationSwell 2017 AllStars

Fighting Cyberbullying Can Be as Easy as Pressing Pause

October 1, 2017
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Fighting Cyberbullying Can Be as Easy as Pressing Pause
Thomas Shomaker, Kayle Hope, Chris Faust
Teen developer Trisha Prabhu built an app that gets users to stop and think before sending hateful messages.

Rebecca Sedwick was a victim of cyberbullying at the age of 12. Her death sparked a national conversation about how to best address cyberbullying. People began asking how parents could better manage their kids’ digital communications. “I’m aggravated that the parents aren’t doing what they are supposed to be doing,” Florida Polk County Sheriff Grady Judd told CNN during the investigation into Sedwick’s death.

But Trisha Prabhu, who, inspired by Sedwick’s case, created the anti-bullying app ReThink when she was just 13, found that it wasn’t necessarily the parents’ responsibility to manage their kids’ online presence; rather, it was important for teens themselves to understand that what they say to a peer could be devastating.

“Here we are, giving teenagers this incredible power to communicate as digital citizens. And quite frankly, they’re not really equipped to make those decisions,” Prabhu, now 17, says. Her app uses an algorithm that recognizes and flags offensive language before it’s sent via text message or posted online. “There are severe consequences and lifelong scars when someone is bullied, and cyberspace compounds the effects.”

Numerous studies have shown that the prefrontal cortex, the part of the brain that manages impulse control, develops during teenage years but matures later, when people reach their mid-20s. That lack of impulse control leads to words a teen aggressor might regret. It’s also inspired anti-bullying advocates to find ways to encourage teens to second-guess their online interactions.

Prabhu’s ReThink app, which has been pushed by the Los Angeles Police Department and other organizations, uses an algorithm that is able to recognize and flag offensive language, then halt the message from being sent, allowing the sender a second chance to evaluate what they’ve written.

ReThink’s linguistic models are able to tell the difference between a user complaining about the weather, say, versus a user who’s sending a threat to someone. So for example, typing out “I hate the rain” would not be flagged. But messaging “I hate you,” on the other hand, would trigger the app’s filtering tool, which pops up when the user hits send and asks, “Are you sure you want to post this message?”

The app is invaluable to organizations that have been looking to technology as a disruptor for negative online messaging. Initial trial runs of the app found that 93 percent of teens that use it changed their minds about sending a message. ReThink now has more than 1.1 million users around the U.S.

“All the app does is shoot a question back to you, and it helps give you another filter,” says Jane Clementi, whose son Tyler was a victim of suicide in 2010 after his college roommate outed him by posting a sex video online. “I always tell people to take a breath, reread what they’ve written and if it’s not building someone up, if it’s tearing them down, I would hope that they would reconsider what they’ve written or maybe even discard it.”

Jane and her husband, Joe, started the Clementi Foundation, a nonprofit dedicated to preventing the kind of bullying their son endured. The couple has endorsed the ReThink app and appointed Prabhu to the foundation’s board.

“Technology like the ReThink app gives you a second chance,” says Joe. “And you don’t always get a second chance on a lot of things.”

The 2017 AllStars program is produced in partnership with Comcast NBCUniversal and celebrates social entrepreneurs who are powering solutions with innovative technology. Visit NationSwell.com/AllStars from Oct. 2 to Nov. 2 to vote for your favorite AllStar. The winner will receive the Tech Impact Award, a $10,000 grant to help further his or her work advocating for change.

Correction: A previous version of this video incorrectly stated that Trisha Prabhu had already graduated from high school. She is currently a senior in high school. NationSwell apologizes for the error.

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