Can a mobile application that uses artificial intelligence become a useful tool in the fight against online bullying?
Bark, a mobile safety app created by a startup founded by a Twitter alumnus, is hoping to do just that. The software employs machine learning to detect signs of negative behavior on a teen’s phone, including cyberbullying, sexting, depression and suicidal thoughts.
Parents initially sign up through Bark’s website, then get their children to connect their social media accounts. The software will read the accounts, but will not store or share any of the data.
Founder and CEO Brian Bason got the idea for Bark while still working for Twitter, which had acquired his previous start-up called Niche. With two kids just old enough to have phones, he felt that even though he worked in technology, he didn’t know how to keep track of them online.
“Our view is that there are a lot of tools out there that just expose all of the kids’ activity,” Bason told CNBC. “This preserves the child’s privacy and builds trust.”
According to the National Institute of Mental Health, suicide is the second leading cause of deaths for young adults and adults ages 15 to 34. In recent years, the problem of teen suicide has taken on a new dimension because of the proliferation of technology.
The stakes are high, as parents search for new ways to safeguard their children from the harmful side effects of online interaction. In popular culture, a new Netflix show, “13 Reasons Why,” has stoked more discussion by tackling the prominent role of social media and cell phones in teenagers’ lives — and their impact on teen psychology.
“We teach our kids to look both ways when they cross the street. Don’t talk to strangers. We need to do the same thing for children with digital uses,” said Bason. “The scope has expanded. As a parent, it opens up what you have to consider. The vast majority of kids have internet-connected devices.”
Bark’s app doesn’t give parents full access to their children’s social activity, but it monitors for potential issues and identifies language that may be of concern. Codes like “CD9” or “9” — which stands for “parents are nearby,” or “53X” for “sex” are examples of what the software tags in its search.
“We keep our ear close to the ground. We have a youth advisory council to understand trends,” Bason told CNBC.
The app lets the machine learning algorithm do all the work, operating in the background of apps and mining for red flags. It also works with most social platforms, such as Snapchat, Facebook, Twitter, Gmail, YouTube, and Kik, among others.
Bason mentions that in the past few months, the company has flagged at least two dozen potentially fatal, suicide-related situations. In those instances, parents said they weren’t aware anything was going on, but the app allowed them to step in and intervene.
Bark monitors tens of millions of messages per month with kids on the platform, sending about 500 messages a week and on the higher end 1,000 a day. It costs $99 a year per family and supports an unlimited number of children and connections.
Bark has pulled in $3 million in venture funding.
– Reporting by Deborah Findling | @dfindles