Teens have what it takes to resist bullying online, Chris Tanti says. They just need the same reminder we all do: that a real person is on the other side, feeling the hurtful comment we just tweeted or posted on Facebook.
Where antibullying assemblies and posters often fail, a simple red line might succeed, says Mr. Tanti, the CEO of Australia's National Youth Mental Health Foundation. "Reword," a free Google Chrome extension the Foundation designed with advertising agency Leo Burnett Melbourne, learns to recognize insulting language, and sends a slender red line through the offending words, along with a pop-up reminder: "Would you say this to a friend? Don’t create another victim."
It can't force the typist to change his or her message. But that message is all it takes for most teens to reconsider, according to Reword's tests.
"No one teaches you how to operate on social media. We often learn the hard way," Tanti says in a video on Reword's site, calling the program a real-time intervention to help kids develop "self-regulation," and think about "the impact on the other person."
Bullying in middle- and high-schools is nothing new, but many tech experts and educators believe that the Internet, and social media in particular, has made it especially pernicious. Kids who could once retreat to family, other friends, or extracurricular programs after school are now likely to have their bullies follow them home, sending cruel messages to their phones or social sites throughout the evening.
About one quarter of students say they've been teased online, according to the Cyberbullying Research Center, and sixteen percent admit they've bullied others. But numbers can be hard to pin down, particularly if kids don't recognize what's happening as "bullying." A study from the American Association of University Women found that almost one third of high schoolers had been sexually harassed through texts, email, Facebook, or other online media.
And the bullied often become the bullies, a group especially vulnerable to long-term risks like depression.
Online cruelty isn't a kids-only problem, of course, but not many adults are likely to download programs like Reword on their own. Headspace, another name for the National Youth Mental Health Foundation, believes that schools who download it in their computers, or students' computers, could see a big impact.
It's potentially powerful for all ages, Headspace says, because it slows down and humanizes the messages we might dash off dozens of times per day. Looking at a tweet box, it can be hard to really believe that people could be hurt by the 124 characters on your screen — and the seconds it takes to compose don't leave room for reflection.
And social media profiles may inflate our sense of self-esteem in the first place, emphasizing a "me first" mentality that makes the feelings of others seem secondary.
Sites like Facebook or Twitter can seem like a popularity contest, tallying up the number of likes or retweets a post gets, and giving us a "sense of entitlement," Columbia Business School assistant professor Keith Wilcox, who has studied Facebook's effect on self-control, told the Wall Street Journal in 2012. "You want to protect that enhanced view, which might be why people are lashing out so strongly at others who don't share their opinions."
Reword can't recognize every insulting or offensive term, much less every hurtful phrase, although users can submit words for the team to consider crossing out. But it's not there to ban certain words so much as to prompt kindness, or at least a second thought.
"We can have a massive impact on the social and emotional well-being of people’s lives," Tanti says.