A 15-Year-Old Tech Genius Is Using Her Coding Skills to Curb Cyberbullying

Trisha Prabhu created ReThink, a software program that helps teens avoid harassing their peers online.

Trisha Prabhu speaking at a TEDxTeen event. (Photo: YouTube)

Aug 6, 2015· 3 MIN READ
A veteran journalist and former White House correspondent for Politico, Joseph Williams is a freelance writer, blogger, and essayist in Washington, D.C.

The often anonymous messages, sent by text and email, are meant to wound—sometimes to the point of death: You’re fat, you’re ugly, and nobody likes you, they say. Those shoes suck, and so do you. You’re a loser—why don’t you kill yourself already?

Hurtful words like those, however, inspired Trisha Prabhu to make a difference.

Angered by the suicide of an 11-year-old cyberbullying victim she’d never met—and the sting of electronic insults she’d received—Prabhu decided to try to stop the abuse at its source. The 15-year-old’s invention, ReThink, a computer software program that urges potential bullies to think twice about their actions, has the potential to curb the harassment that affects millions of young people each year.

The add-on program has text-recognition capability, and whenever it detects an offensive phrase, including ones recognized by the Cyberbullying Research Center, it displays a pop-up window asking the user to reconsider. Prabhu says she tested the theory and found that a simple message received from a computer or cell phone a moment before firing off a nasty comment discouraged teens from hitting “send” 93 percent of the time.

Prabhu, a precocious scientist, has taken her program and her findings on a journey from her suburban Chicago high school to the White House—and to the brink of teenage science stardom. She’s also using her spotlight to educate others about cyberbullying. In late July she appeared on a panel about the topic at the Military Child Education Coalition conference in Washington, D.C.

“For me, it really started in the fall of 2013,” said Prabhu, after she noticed “this horrible article about this young girl who’s 11 who jumps off her town’s water tower to her death, all because she’d been cyberbullied.” After she finished the article, Prabhu wondered, “Why aren’t there more effective ways to stop this silent pandemic from spreading? Why aren’t there proactive solutions, and why is [cyberbullying] becoming socially acceptable?”

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There’s little doubt cyberbullying—the use of email, text messages, or social media posts to threaten, harass, or spread rumors about someone—is at near-epidemic levels among school-age children and teenagers.

According to NoBullying.com, a quarter of teens and more than half of young adults say they’ve been victimized this way, yet only about 50 percent reported the harassment or told their parents. Although 80 percent of teenagers use cell phones and most have witnessed some form of cyberbullying, just 5 percent have intervened to stop it.

At the same time, in an era when adolescent suicide rates are falling, cyberbullying victims are almost twice as likely to commit suicide as non-victims, and the rate seems to be rising. That, coupled with several high-profile cases of victims killing themselves after being bullied online, has some experts declaring it a public health issue.

In Prabhu’s view, attempts to address the problem at school and in other settings—warnings and punishment for the perpetrators, help for the victims only if they report the problem—take a backward approach. “I was thinking, Why are we even letting this happen? We should stop cyberbullying before it happens, before the damage is done, before the victim feels hurt,” she said.

That challenge sent her to the computer keyboard.

“I’ve been coding from a very young age. I love using my technology skills,” she said. “So I thought, OK, I know how to code. I know that this is something I’m passionate about. Let me try and fuse them together to see if I can make a difference. That’s really where ReThink was born.”

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Since then, the program has exploded: Prabhu was a global finalist in last year’s Google Science Fair, was invited to the White House, and was featured in Coca-Cola’s “Make It Happy” Super Bowl ad campaign, in which she described her own experience with cyberbullying. She’s also delivered TED Talks in London and Mumbai, lectures that put her on the world science stage.

Prabhu plans to continue to develop her idea, which is just as applicable to adults as it is to young people.

“There are people who tell me, ‘Gosh, I know someone who can benefit from this system, and they’re 30 or 40 years old,’ ” she said. At the same time, she added, “Those scars don’t disappear. In fact, here are new research studies that show cyberbullying [effects] last,” sometimes into middle age.

Along with peers, teachers, and even strangers praising the idea since she unveiled it last year, Prabhu was recently invited to present her idea at the White House’s annual youth science exposition. “I’ve been blessed,” she said. However, the real gratification, she said, comes from being “motivated that what I’m doing is important and people care.”