Preventing Digital Harassment with Trisha Prabhu

Jordan Shapiro

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Trisha Prabhu, an innovator and anti-cyberbullying advocate, join us for a powerful discussion on combating digital harassment. Trisha shares insights from her journey as the creator of ReThink, a technology solution designed to detect and deter offensive language before it’s posted online. Together, they explore the current landscape of online bullying and the proactive steps being taken by her company and the tech industry to combat them.

Trisha Prabhu: Hi, everyone. My name is Trisha Prabhu. I am the inventor of ReThink, a patented app that stops cyberbullying before it happens. I first got into this work as a teenager. I had my own experience with bullying and cyberbullying, and I saw the issue and how it was affecting youth in my community and around the world and really wanted to do something about it. I didn’t want to be a bystander. I wanted to be an upstander. And my vision was tackling cyberbullying at its root with the cyberbully, before they say something mean or hurtful, that in the moment, they may not realize it’s having that kind of impact, but then later might regret, and so I came up with this idea for ReThink. At the time, it was just an idea, but then for an 8th grade science fair project, I had the chance to test it, to validate it, and realized it was an incredibly effective way to tackle cyberbullying. And that launched a multi-year journey to take this idea and bring it to life and create a technology that could help cultivate, as we say it at ReThink, a new generation of responsible digital citizens. So that’s the mission I’m working towards. Yeah, that’s me in a nutshell.

Jordan Shapiro: Wow, I’m so excited about this. You said so many things there. I want to follow up on one. I’m going to ask you to really just explain so much about ReThink, but before that, I want to go back to one thing you said, which is that you had your own experience with bullying and cyberbullying. I mean, trigger warning for anyone listening, because I’m about to ask you to tell us about it. What was it like for you to be 13 years old? What did it feel like? What was the everyday experience of being a 13-year-old in a world of smartphones and social media?

Trisha: Yeah, I think the words that come to mind are overwhelming and lonely. I think, especially when you’re a teenager or a young teenager, so much of what you think and see about yourself is reflected in other people. I saw other people kind of as a mirror, and I really believed what other people had to say about me. I think with time, you kind of have the maturity to realize, okay, that person might be struggling with something, right? And so they’re projecting onto you because of their own insecurity or because of their own challenges. But as a young person, you don’t realize that. You believe what other people say about you. So, for me, being excluded or receiving texts that I thought were from one person but were actually from another person and then, you know, were used as a joke and spread to all the students in my school. That was telling me, you know, you’re not worthy, you’re not loved, you’re not important. And I really believed that. And so for the longest time, I just felt incredibly lonely, like I didn’t really know where I fit in the world and I wanted to find that place to fit and was struggling to find that place to fit. And so it was hard because, again, that’s all I knew. And it took a while for me to then rebuild and repair that confidence and realize and affirm that I was worthy, that I was important, that I was loved. So it is really difficult.

Jordan: Yeah. I think in your book, you used the term “girl drama” exactly to describe it. And you just did such a beautiful job of sort of explaining the feeling that happens when we see this sort of everyday girl drama that sadly is glamorized in our television shows. So it’s really fantastic. Do you imagine it feels similar to 13-year-olds right now? Do you think things have changed, or do you think it’s a similar thing with maybe better solutions, like the ReThink app?

Trisha: Yeah, first of all, I’ll just say girl drama, it’s tough. I always tell middle schoolers it gets better, because it’s a tough period. In terms of how it’s evolved, I think it’s gotten better in some ways, because there was far less awareness and advocacy around cyberbullying when I was 13, which, believe it or not, is coming up on 10 years ago, which I can’t believe that it’s been that much time, but there was so much less conversation about it. And I think now increasingly there is literacy education, advocacy conversation. There’s been an effort to try and get rid of the stigma. That’s a huge part of the work that we do as well, and technology solutions to try and prompt and teach youth to be smarter. On the other hand, I think that social media has also evolved and changed right? And created new opportunities and new challenges. So it’s always a balancing act, and it’s certainly, I think, still a very important issue, one that we have to continue to work to address.

Laura Higgins: Definitely.

Jordan: Before I hand you the next question, Laura, I just want to say, that you use the word “girl drama” in the book, but it’s not unique to girls. Everybody’s experiencing it, and even the idea of girl drama just normalizes the notion that we think we should accept it and not fight.

Trisha: Absolutely. It’s a rite of passage, right? That’s how it’s portrayed. And I think we’ve got to do more to try to try and rework that narrative. For sure, yeah.

Laura:I remember Rosalind Wiseman wrote the books around Mean Girls and Wing Men and those clicks. They still exist, but hopefully the education and the way that we talk about those things does help people to be more resilient, and feel more able to manage the situations around them.

I’m going to dig into more of the technical stuff, so I want to know much more about the app itself. How does it work, what happens? If I was going to download it on my phone now, what would be the process? How would I get my hands on it and what would it do?

Trisha: If you download the app onto your phone, it’s very simple. You go to either the Google Play Store or the App Store. The ReThink app is free. So you get the app and when you download it. The setup process, which is really simple, in essence, consists of replacing your mobile device’s default keyboard with our ReThink keyboard. So the keyboard that’s on your phone that you type on, we just swap that out for a keyboard that has the power to detect offensive content in the moment and then prompt you to rethink. And so what that means is in the end we’re platform agnostic, so we can work across every app on your phone from email to social media and instantaneously in the moment, detect offensive content intelligently and then give you a chance to pause, review, and rethink.

Jordan: So you said already that you had tested it during your 8th grade science fair and had great results. Tell us how all of it works. I know you have numbers, statistics. It doesn’t have to be the 8th grade success, I assume you have even more numbers now.

Trisha: Yes. So, I mean, it’s incredibly effective amongst the youth age group, 13 to 18. Over 93% of the time when this age group receives this ReThink alert. “Whoa, hold on, are you sure you want to post this?” They change their mind and decide not to post this offensive message and over time we’ve innovated with trying to keep that statistic really high. So for instance, you’ll get a different ReThink message each time you receive an alert to try and keep kind of the shock factor high of receiving that alert and really intervening, so you don’t become desensitized to the ReThink alert. But the fact that we can proactively stop cyberbullying at the source in such an incredible way, so overwhelmingly, 93% of the time. I think it is a testament to the fact that, you know, so much of what happens on the internet is in part because of a lack of friction, right? So much of what we don’t like or see on the internet is just because, you know, it can feel very ephemeral. And reminding people about their humanity, bringing their conscience to the forefront, is just a really powerful, simple, yet powerful intervention.

Laura: And I think it’s one that a lot of adults could do with as well. This is not just for young people. I really want to say that.

Trisha: That was actually our biggest request during the pandemic, believe it or not, the pandemic started, and we started to get all these requests from companies like, is there ReThink for adults? Is there a ReThink for the workplace? Because everything transitioned online, and suddenly Slack was getting, like, a little snarky. So, believe it or not, we do have ReThink for Slack coming soon. One of our biggest product requests.

Jordan: Can I ask you a question about I’m sort of interested in a behind-the-scenes question at ReThink. Some of the things, the things we started talking about, the kind of bullying that we see in the media, glamorized in the media, a lot of that stuff. I can imagine that that’s not the hard stuff to program in, right? Like how to be mean, how to recognize I mean, how not to be mean, how to recognize when your language could be on the edge. But there’s also so much that it takes to really do that in a way that is trauma-informed, in a way that’s thinking about all the potential micro-aggressions. We have so many average statements that we say that have not been considered in our everyday life. So how do you think we think about one staying up to date, right? Being informed, learning all these things, as scholars and people finally tell us, wow, it’s been hurting to hear that language all the time when we didn’t even realize it was bullying for 20 years or 50 years or 100 years. So how do you think about being on that edge? Or I guess making sure that the underlying code isn’t just replicating existing social justice problems?

Trisha: Such a great question and I think such an important issue, particularly where you have AI or any type of intelligent technology in the picture. And we have to be really open, really transparent, and really, really critical and intentional, because perpetuating existing, existing language that is harmful, right, that is creating harm goes directly against the mission of what we’re trying to do. So in our case, it’s two things, I think. One is a mindset, right? The mindset is we’re never done, the product is never perfect. You know what I mean? So it’s never, it’s never, it’s never whenever over, it’s constantly, constantly, constantly being updated. And part of that is just because the language period evolves, right? Slang evolves, you know, kids get more creative. You know, it’s very common, you know, for instance, on video game platforms to have young people try and get around filters, take an offensive word and just get rid of a letter, get rid of two letters, put in a star, right? Young people got creative. So we have to get creative too, right? And we have to be conscious of those changes and that trend and evolution. The other thing to your point is also constantly thinking about to that mindset of we’re never done is also thinking about what we are learning, right?

What are we learning about ourselves, about the world, about how people communicate with one another and what is and is not appropriate. So always being in tune to that. And that leads into kind of the second thing, which is practice. So all of our technology. We work with psychologists. We work with linguistic experts. When we’re developing this technology in international languages, we’re working with local, on-the-ground linguistic experts to think about the appropriate context and to think about how language can affect other people in ways that we may not understand or expect, right? If there’s one takeaway that I learned from this entire process, it’s that I’m not a language expert. Two, language is really hard, to your point. It’s very easy to think about this being simple when you think about the extreme cases like I hate you or something that’s super obscene. But there’s a lot of gray. There’s a lot of gray, right? And we have to be really conscious, too, to stay true to our values and our beliefs. For instance, some people might say that some language that’s used by the LGBTQ community is offensive. We completely disagree, right? And so we have to stay true to our values, and we need to draw really clear lines and be careful not to get swept up into some of that. All that’s to say, it’s a process. It’s a combination of a mindset of we’re never done, we’re always going to be intentional, we’re always going to be critical, and the practice of bringing in experts who can offer the insight, the advice, the expertise that’s necessary to do this in a way that is rigorous and up to the standards that we think are absolutely needed.

Laura: Fantastic. That was really good, really helpful. And yeah, it resonates with me. Again, we see these things both on Roblox and more broadly in the sort of teenage community around this. They will be very inventive about how they insult one another. And actually, a lot of it might not go against normal terms of a platform. It can be really subtle. And again, that cultural nuance and difference is really interesting, and it is a huge amount of tasks. So well done. Okay. And it’s great, actually, to hear that you work with other kinds of child development professionals as well as experts in the field in this area. So a lot of our audience are parents, and they are fed a lot of scary stuff from the media. For us, what sorts of things do you think are the red flags? What do you think parents and educators and actually kids and teens should be worried about? And also maybe what we shouldn’t worry about so much? The stuff that we’re seeing, the scary stuff.

Trisha: Yeah. I mean, I think first and foremost, the good news for parents and educators is that the most extreme consequences of cyberbullying happen, but extremely rarely, right? So we see stories, and I mean, it’s heartbreaking, and it is really horrifying, right. When we see, for instance, cases of, as you said, Laura, lives lost to cyberbullying or self-harm suicidal tendencies as a result. But again, it’s a very rare instance. So that’s the good news. I think we should, of course, have that in mind and never want to escalate to that. But I don’t think that the goal coming in should be, oh my gosh, if I give my child the device, they’re going to explode, or if my child is on a social media platform, they’re going to explode. I think it’s more my advice to parents and educators is how can you create open channels of communication with your children so that if and when a problem does arise, your child can come to you? I think that the number one thing that I encourage parents to do is to not wait to have a conversation about their child’s phone or their Internet use until a problem arises, which is a very common strategy, right?

That’s the first time you have a conversation about it, or that’s the first time you’re talking really seriously about it. How can you do that proactively so that, one, a child feels comfortable coming to you if they experience something negative, but also two, so that you’re always talking about and learning about their experiences, what they’re seeing, and you can help shape and inform, right? You can be a part of that conversation as opposed to something that’s just happening on the side. Very siloed. That’s my big piece of advice. And then in terms of what to look out for, I think conversations with your children about how they see themselves and self image I think is really important, right. Because these more subtle effects of social media and interaction online I think are more common. Certainly I’ve heard it in conversation with young people, right? So it’s not the child exploding, it’s more these little learned attitudes or perspectives. So how can you have conversations with your children? Again, this comes right back to that first point, right, of keeping those channels of communication open, right? When those channels are open, then you can have conversations with them, right, about their perspectives or what they’re internalizing and ensuring that they’re staying true to themselves and that they’re remembering and being reminded that they are important, that they’re perfect as they are, right?

I think that those two types of things are super important. And then I think also having conversations with children about what is and is not appropriate to say super important sounds super basic to say. But I think a lot of young people can sometimes feel, again, as I said, because of the ephemeral nature of the digital world, there’s a little creative license that’s like, I can be a different person. I have a digital persona. Like, that’s not me. And I think having conversations with kids about the fact that what they say online has consequences for other people, but also for them, you’d be surprised how many young people I’ve met with who don’t realize that a future employer might be looking at their social media, right? So I think having conversations around that is super important. But yeah, I think overall, the big takeaway for parents and educators is the good news is the phone is not like it’s a ticking time bomb, right. That’s not what it is. It’s more a pathway to a new world where a child can learn and explore and develop different parts of their identities. And how can you be a part of that process so that that development is healthy and positive and not so that it is negative? Not so that they are saying or receiving bad content, and not so that they’re internalizing or starting to buy into assumptions that are completely off the mark. Right. I think that’s more how we need to be thinking about tackling the challenges that come with devices.

Laura: So there’s critical thinking skills again, as well as spotting the misinformation.

Jordan: Yeah, absolutely. And you’re starting to bring this mission through technology and programming to schools, right. What does that look like?

Trisha: Yes. So we do a lot of collaboration with schools both in the US. And globally. And it depends in terms of the actual. Sometimes we’ll work directly with schools if we’re working internationally, often we’ll work with an organization. But we’ll bring the ReThink technology to schools. We’ll also bring a digital literacy wellness curriculum where we’re teaching young people again about those digital literacy basics and age-specific audience, also incorporating those socio-emotional learning skills. So that’s a big part of what we’re doing now. And we think that’s super important because school really is the place we go to learn all the things that are crucial right, for life. Or in theory, that’s what school is supposed to be. And growing up, I always had to learn about substance abuse. We learned about a number of important issues. We never really talked about the Internet. There was no thought process of it. Not enough to just give people a phone or give young people a phone. We need to give them a framework with which to use that phone. We need to give them a toolkit. We need to give them the language. So a lot of what we do in schools is creating language around things that some young people or adults would think is obvious.

But a lot of young people, often especially at a young age, don’t really have the tools to identify and say, oh, that’s the problem. Right. Or this is the specific issue where this is how it’s creating harm. That’s a huge part of what we do. And then another huge part of what we do is just empowering young people to feel confident about issues that sometimes can feel taboo, right?

It can be hard, for instance, to talk with parents about sexting. Right. I just put that right. That’s a conversation parents don’t want to have. It’s a conversation children don’t want to have. And the result is no one talks about that. But the truth is that, again, it’s rare. But according to the most recent statistics from Pew, 7% of US teenagers, 13 to 17, are having images that they’ve sent forwarded on without their consent, right? So it is a problem, right? And we have to have these conversations. And so part of also what we try to do is use that opportunity to that platform in schools to convey crucial information that young people may not be receiving or talking about in other arenas, because it’s too taboo, right? Despite the fact that it might be a real issue that maybe they don’t confront, but a friend confronts. Right. And again, being educated as an opportunity to help them.

Laura: Absolutely. Love that. Well, this has been amazing. I’m going to come back to my last question, I think. So, Trisha, what next for you? What are your big dreams? What are you doing with yourself now? And also thinking specifically about ReThink? What are the next steps? What are you incubating for that as well?

Trisha: Yeah, so, for me, I’m really blessed. I’m actually here in the UK with you, Laura, doing my postgraduate study at the University of Oxford as a Rhodes Scholar. And so I’m here doing research on the internet. Very fitting, thinking about cyberbullying and hate speech, but also thinking about misinformation, which is also increasingly a very important issue affecting the internet, but also youth and how they’re receiving information online. So doing research in that space, that’s keeping me busy. And as I think about the future, I hope that a lot of it is ReThink, but I also hope a lot of it is thinking about new innovative solutions, right? Technical solutions, but also, hopefully, solutions that are sitting at the intersection of a number of stakeholders, right. You know, parents, policy, tech, everyone coming together to kind of envision more broadly, what does a good internet look like? That’s kind of what’s motivating me, right?

Because I think the power of something like ReThink rate is addressing an important issue. I think the limit is that it’s one solution and we have a vast array of problems, and so I’m hoping to get at that vast array of problems. At least that’s my vision in terms of ReThink and kind of our vision as we look to the future. I think the biggest thing is expanding internationally and tackling cyberbullying in a global context. And that means also thinking about what online hate and harassment look like in different parts of the world. Because it looks different in the US, it looks different in the UK, it looks different in Lebanon, which is a country where we’re bringing ReThink and our educational curriculum to next month, actually, which is super exciting, but it’s different in different parts of the world. But with the COVID-19 Pandemic, there’s been this huge acceleration of technology and internet use. Right. So parts of the world where cyberbullying with less of a conversation or less prevalent, that is starting to become an issue, particularly amongst youth populations. So how can we scale ReThink up to those populations? Make the technology available in new languages, develop a curriculum that is appropriate for the context, and hopefully try and address some of its worst effects before they happen, right?

In places where this is an up-and-coming issue, if we can really get to the root of the problem before it fully manifests, then that’s the ideal. So that’s, I think the big vision for ReThink and also hopefully making ReThink the Internet standard, that’s my big vision for ReThink. I think it’s super powerful, right, but one of its biggest limits, as an app at least, is that it has to be downloaded, right? That’s part of the reason that we work with schools, that’s a big part of the reason we work with communities, is so that we can use them as kind of a conduit through which we can roll this technology out to young people. But in the long term, how great would it be if this just could be the internet standard, right? If this is the default and we could work with big platforms and big companies to make this just a reality for what our experience of interacting online is, that would be the absolute best. So that’s the longer-term vision.

Laura: So pretty big stuff. One to watch, I would suspect. And hopefully we’ll be having another conversation in a few years about all of these amazing things you’ve achieved, fixing the internet being one of them, by the sounds of things.

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Jordan Shapiro

Author of Father Figure: How to Be a Feminist Dad (www.FeministDadBook.com) Twitter: @jordosh