BullyBlocker an interdisciplinary effort, goes beyond abilities of other apps by combining risk factors with keywords to alert parents
Last December, as other teens were looking forward to the holiday season and planning outings with friends and family, Houston-area high school student Brandy Vela was feeling so overwhelmed by online harassment that she held a gun to her chest and pulled the trigger.
Vela's death is an extreme example of what can happen as a result of cyberbullying, but a 2016 paper co-authored by Yasin Silva, associate professor of computer science at Arizona State University, cites a statistic that more than half of adolescents have been bullied online.
Just this month, Silva and his New College of Interdisciplinary Arts and Sciences team of faculty and students announced the public availability of BullyBlocker, a smartphone application that allows parents and victims of cyberbullying to monitor, predict and hopefully prevent incidents of online bullying.
The first version of the app is currently available for free in the Apple app store, and the ASU team has received a nearly $300,000 grant from the National Science Foundation to continue research and development of subsequent versions.
While there are other cyberbullying applications available, BullyBlocker is different in that it is the first and only application so far to do more than just flag potentially harmful posts and comments.
Existing apps comb through content on a person’s social-media profile looking for keywords or phrases that could indicate bullying and alert the user of the app — the user of the app can be a parent, guardian or even the victims themselves.
“We are going beyond that,” Silva said. “That’s just step number one in our process.”
BullyBlocker not only identifies those kinds of threats, it combines that information with risk factors (also called states of vulnerability) that have been shown to increase the probability of bullying, such as whether a person has recently moved schools, their socioeconomic status or their race. The app calculates the probability that an adolescent is being bullied based on keywords and risk factors, then alerts the app user — who most likely would be a parent or guardian, helping them to be aware of what is happening in their child's life.
“We’re trying to use a more holistic approach to really consider all the different signs and factors that might be involved in cyberbullying,” Silva said.