Thirteen-year-old Trisha Prabhu of Naperville, Illinois recently made waves with her Rethink cyberbullying prevention app at the 2014 Google Science Fair. Her app recognizes hurtful trigger words such as “stupid” or “ugly” and uses basic neuroscience to make would-be bullies re-evaluate their actions. The entry was chosen to be among Google’s 15 global finalists; although it wasn’t among the winners announced on September 22nd, Prabhu’s work nonetheless represents a brilliant effort to put an end to cyberbullying.
According to the National Crime Prevention Council, 43 percent of teens experienced cyberbullying during the past year. Offensive material can come from instant messages, social media, forums, and the comments sections of popular websites. Cyberbullying is harder to track than traditional bullying, as it’s difficult to monitor the thousands of websites on which adolescents interact. Victims don’t always report incidents of bullying, either. The result is that adolescents silently suffer, leaving those attacked feeling like they have no way out.
The damage from cyberbullying is evident in related cases of suicide. This vicious cycle, in fact, is what drove Trish Prabhu to design Rethink. Prabhu told John Hopkins University’s Cogito.org that, when she learned of Rebecca Ann Sedwick’s suicide from repeated cyberbullying, she decided she had to take action. The daughter of computer-scientist parents, Prabhu had an early knack for science and technology, and she loved learning about the mechanisms of the human brain. She theorized that giving people a chance to reconsider negative online posting might make them change their minds.
In performing background research, Prabhu found that most of the methods for handling cyberbullying involve punishment of the bully after the incident had occurred. While creating consequence is important in stopping cyberbullying, this did not protect adolescents from experiencing bullying in the first place. Awareness of bullying can be an effective prevention in some cases, but Prabhu knew she wanted to do more than that. She wanted to find a way to prevent bullying, to avoid the damage that bullying causes as well as the potential backlash from having to report it.
Most of the research about bullying suggests adolescents who bully do so because of insecurity or uncontrolled emotions. As young brains develop, so do understandings of responsibility and social norms. Add hormones and the emotional variations common in adolescents, and the result is an environment in which many young individuals seek to leverage power in their social networks by any means available. Studying the adolescent brain holds the key to understanding the behavior behind bullying.
Prabhu had studied the inner workings of the brain previously for another science project, so her exploration into the neuroscience behind cyberbullying was an easy transition. She examined data showing that the prefrontal cortex of the brain, the portion responsible for decision-making and impulse control, is not fully developed in younger adults. This leaves adolescents vulnerable to making snap decisions, since they aren’t able to think about potential outcomes from poor decisions. Based on this information, she postulated that a trigger would allow teens the chance to think about their actions and improve their decision-making about negative online posts.
Image via Imgur
The best way that Prabhu found to give adolescents a chance to think before posting was a Web app. This browser add-on creates a pop-up that warns the user about potentially malicious messages by screening online posts. Prabhu’s computer science background allowed her to create a system that screens the content without collecting personal information or violating an individual’s privacy. An algorithm based on certain types of words and phrases will trigger the pop-up and prevent the user from immediately submitting his or her post.
The pop-up asks if the user is sure he or she wants to post something of a malicious nature. In her preliminary studies, more than 90 percent of participants decided against posting negative messages when faced with the pop-up. Part of the app’s success is that it gives a young person’s less developed prefrontal cortex a chance to sort through the outcome of a potentially offensive online post.
Another way this app is helpful is that it attributes accountability to online users. Cyberbullying is unique in that the bully can remain anonymous. In other forms of bullying, the antagonist witnesses the emotional response of the person being bullied, but cyberbullies don’t see the immediate emotional backlash, and their identities are hidden from their victims. The pop-up message alerts the online poster that what they are saying is potentially harmful, allowing for more accountability regarding the impact of an offensive post.
Prabhu’s eighth-grade teacher, fellow students, and parents weren’t the only people impressed with her research and newly developed app. Chicago-based entrepreneurial hub 1871 awarded her first prize in the PowerPitch Competition, and as previously mentioned, the Google Science Fair selected her as the top global finalist in her age group. Prabhu’s passion for her cause has spurred media interest in her research, which correlated existing data on how young minds work with the increasing problem of cyberbullying, and in the app’s potential to change how young people engage with each other online.
Prabhu succeeded in creating a unique solution to an existing problem. Her app effectively prevents the damage that bullying can cause and allows adolescents a chance to take accountability and think about potential outcomes. Her understanding of neuroscience led the design of the app, while her computer science background allows for the potential to collect more data about cyberbullying. Prabhu’s Web app could spare adolescents the emotional damage from bullying and improve decision-making skills.
As her app continues to improve, Prabhu has big hopes that schools, parents, and perhaps even social media platforms will implement her browser add-on to decrease the risk of cyberbullying. “My idea is to create a scalable product that works with existing social media sites/apps and easily adopts to any new social media sites/apps that may come up in future,” she writes in the conclusion to her Google Science Fair submission. “I am looking forward to a future where we have conquered cyber-bullying!”