Teen's clever plan to stop cyberbullies

Making teens think before they post.
Making teens think before they post. 

Parents and educators have wracked their brains to come up with ways to stop the scourge that is cyberbullying. But it is a 13-year-old girl who has come up with a clever initiative that could lead to kinder and more thoughtful interactions between teenagers online.

Trisha Prabhu developed and tested software, known as Rethink, which has the potential to reduce cyberbullying by an incredible 93 per cent. The Chicago schoolgirl has been named as one of 15 global finalists in the 2014 Google Science Fair for her initiative which she hopes could one day be used by social media sites to stop the negative fall-out from teens bullying each other online. 

Trisha's software forces teenagers to reconsider the implications of potentially hurtful comments by creating an alert system that would ask users to rethink what they had written before posting it online. Trisha said her idea was based on research which shows the part of the brain responsible for helping people think before acting is not fully developed in teenagers. 

If the results from her test group of 300 teenagers are anything to go by, the initiative could be the answer parents and teachers have been looking for.

"I hypothesized that if adolescents (ages 12-18) were provided an alert mechanism that suggested them to rethink their decision if they expressed willingness to post a mean/hurtful message on social media, the number of mean/hurtful messages that adolescents will be willing to post would be lesser than adolescents that are not provided with such an alert mechanism," Trisha wrote in her submission to the Google Science Fair.

"If this hypothesis is proved to be true, I decided that I would go a step further and creatively design a product prototype (Rethink) that would work for any form of social media across all browsers and apps. This Rethink mechanism may not only result in preventing cyber-bullying, it may also have a long-term, positive effect on adolescents' decision-making skills, helping them not only on social media, but in the real world as well."

To test Rethink, Trisha showed real-life messages based on examples from a cyberbullying agency to a group of 150 boys and 150 girls aged between age 12 and 18. Initially the willingness of group members to post the messages was 71.07 per cent, however after viewing a Rethink  prompt encouraging them to reconsider the message, only 6.57 percent went ahead with the post. 

The impressive reduction in the number of teenagers willing to post messages considered potentially harmful after viewing the Rethink prompt will be welcome news everywhere, including in Australia where a worrying number of children report being victims of a cyberbully.

According to Kids Helpline, in Australia cyberbullying is most commonly an issue in  primary school and early high school. One study found 50.6 per cent of children aged 10 to 14 reported being a victim of cyberbullying, closely followed by teenagers aged between 15 and 18 at 44.2 per cent. In younger children cyberbullying usually focuses on physical appearances while in high school it is more likely to focus on relationships and any behaviour that does not conform to what is considered normal.

The most common impacts of cyberbullying on children and teenagers are anxiety, low self-esteem, depression, fear, anger and embarrassment. It can also lead to poor academic results, truancy, poor mental health and self-harming or suicidal thoughts.

Trisha is continuing to develop her software and has already put together a preliminary design showing how the Rethink system could integrate with social media sites. 

"My design includes a sophisticated context-sensitive filtering system that catches truly 'mean/hurtful' message and works with social media site on web/mobile platform," she wrote in her Google submission.

"I am looking forward to a future where we have conquered cyber-bullying!"