How one teen's app could stop cyberbullying at its source

Trisha Prabhu says kids aren't evil – they just don't know how to stop and think before hitting 'send' on a cruel message. Enter: ReThink.

Fifteen-year-old Trisha Prabhu thinks ending cyberbullying in teens may be as easy as asking people to stop and rethink before sending a potentially hurtful message.

The solution may sound naive, but she has data on her side: last year, she developed a software program called ReThink that did just that. When forced to slow down and think, kids reduced their willingness to send mean-spirited messages by 93 percent.

Now, her technology is on the cusp of becoming available for download: It will launch this week as an add-on for multiple internet platforms, MTV News reported.

The release caps off two years of labor, starting in 2013 when Ms. Prabhu read about the suicide of a 12-year-old following cyberbullying attacks.

“I’ve been coding from a very young age. I love using my technology skills,” said Prabhu, whose parents are computer scientists, to TakePart. “So I thought, OK, I know how to code. I know that [fighting cyberbullying] is something I’m passionate about. Let me try and fuse them together to see if I can make a difference.”

While conducting research for a science project at her suburban Chicago high school, she found that 12-18-year-olds were 40 percent more willing to send hurtful messages than older age groups.

The adolescent brain is like a car with no brakes, she said in a 2014 TEDxTeen talk. That discovery by neuroscientists confirmed Prabhu’s suspicion that “kids are not mean devils that run around with cruel intentions” – they are less able to slow down and think before acting.

Working off the hypothesis that putting brakes on the teenage brain would result in better decision-making on social media, Prabha developed ReThink.

The software scans message drafts for language that may be offensive or cruel, drawing from Cyberbullying Research Center data, and prompts a warning when a user hits “send.” It gives users the option to reconsider with a message like, “This message may be harmful to others. Are you sure you want to post this message?”

In trials she ran at school, the 71 percent of subjects who were willing to post a hurtful message without the pop-up warning dropped to 4 percent when the warning was added.

“I was shocked,” she told MTV News. “I thought there might be a bit of a change, but part of me thought teens would think it was so stupid that they would feel even more encouraged to post [a hurtful] message.... I realized I’d stumbled onto something that could change the game in cyberbullying.”

Identifying hateful terms in message drafts may not catch subtler instances of bullying, but the organization NoBullying found that in 2014, 1 in 10 middle school and high school students have been on the receiving end of “hate terms.”

Prabhu emphasizes Rethink’s attitude of prevention: stopping bullying at the source, before it happens, rather than putting the burden on victims to report an incident once the damage has already been done – a tactic she found many social media platforms to encourage, which she found troubling. “Because 90 percent of the time the victims don’t tell anyone,” she told MTV News.

“Very rarely in this connected world do we remember we need to slow down, pause, think about what we're doing,” she said in the TEDxTeen talk. “We’re posting a message, and that has significance.”

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