Cyberbullying is a very prevalent issue among adolescents. The Youth Risk Behavior Surveillance System estimated in 2019 that 15.7% of high school students faced online bullying the year prior to the research, and it’s only increased since COVID forced more kids behind screens. However anti-cyberbullying apps like the ReThink app are trying to combat that trend.
But do they work?
What Is the ReThink App?
ReThink is an application that recognizes hurtful words and phrases before they are even sent. The application was invented by teen entrepreneur Trisha Prabhu, in an effort to do something about cyberbullying. The smartphone app works for every type of online communication (Facebook, Instagram, email, etc.), thanks to its own integrated keyboard.
When the app detects a hurtful word or phrase, the user gets a message, such as:
- “Let’s change these words to make it more positive.”
- “Are these words really you? Remember, you are what you type!”
As such, the application allows you to “rethink” before you say something hurtful. As of now, ReThink is available in 7 languages (including English).
Does ReThink Work?
According to Justine Pardoen, an expert in online media consumption by adolescents from the Netherlands, Rethink’s strategy does show some potential. The best way to change a child’s behavior is “to prompt them to think about their actions,” she tells Parentology. This is exactly what ReThink aims to do.
How Does ReThink Perform?
ReThink’s detection mechanism definitely shows potential. It detects an impressive number of racist slurs, words that demean women, homophobic insults, terms that marginalize people with disabilities, and other hurtful words and phrases. This is quite promising because it shows a will to tackle what are some of the most common types of cyberbullying: discrimination and exclusion.
When it comes to interpreting the context of words and the structure of sentences, however, ReThink’s algorithm still has quite a bit of learning to do. For instance, when testing ReThink’s ability to detect threats of physical aggression, the application came up short in most instances.
ReThink did manage to detect threats of taking someone’s life. This is presumably the case because ReThink’s algorithm recognizes that the word “kill” followed by a pronoun or any other object in the same sentence, can express a threat.
However, because kids’ language and phrases are constantly changing, it’s tough for the app to always interpret the structure and meaning of more complex sentences.
Is ReThink’s Approach Effective?
Rethink’s strategy, giving adolescents a chance to “rethink” their words, is an interesting one. According to Pardoen, this strategy could work, but there are a few conditions to its success.
“The app mustn’t feel too authoritarian,” she says, arguing that if the app behaves like a nosy and dominant parent, teenagers probably won’t take the app seriously.
Likewise, Pardoen notes that the messages have to inspire kids to rethink their words. Messages like — “Are these words really you? Remember, you are what you type!” — seem too judgmental. She stresses that messages are ideally formulated as a question to “inspire the child to think and make children feel they are the ones who are responsible for their behavior.” She also thinks variation is an important factor in making these messages effective.
Nevertheless, ReThink claims success, stating that “research shows that when adolescents are alerted to ‘ReThink’ their decision, they change their minds 93% of the time.” They add, “Using ReThink, the overall willingness of an adolescent to post an offensive message reduced from 71% to 4%.”
Pardoen does not believe ReThink will be able to combat cyberbullying on a large scale and can’t see it becoming some sort of global cyberbullying exterminator. Instead, she believes ReThink should be thought of mainly as a “supporting” or “experimental” tool. She suggests a more “creative application of ReThink, such as having teenagers try out the app during a class to see what their experience is like.”
Only time will tell whether ReThink will go from 7 to 70 languages someday, or whether it will remain an experimental tool in the realm of cyberbullying prevention. Nonetheless, when it comes to kids and cyberbullying, parents can use every tool in the kit.
Nathan Daniels is an editor and tech writer for VPNOVerview, a platform which compares and reviews cybersecurity solutions such as VPNs and antivirus software and aims to inform the public about ways to stay safe online. He is fascinated by everything related to cybersecurity and has a special interest in helping teenagers and children to safely use the internet, mainly by informing their parents about ways their children can be safe online.