DENVER -- After several school shootings in recent years, technology companies are getting involved to try to prevent another tragedy.
A former Twitter employee created Bark.us, an app allows parents and schools to monitor kids over various social media platforms like Twitter, Instagram, Snapchat, YouTube and Google.
“It finds issues like cyberbullying, sexting, thoughts of suicide or depression or potential drug use or acts of violence. It sends an alert to parents and schools,” said Titania Jordan, the chief parent officer for the company.
The app also looks for signs of predators or predatory activity online and for things like sexual content.
“It’s not a matter of if, but when, your student encounters an issue like cyberbullying, or sexting, or even online predators,” Jordan said.
When something deemed to be inappropriate pops up, the parent or school is sent an alert. The app’s algorithm looks for inappropriate words or phrases and violent content. It not only notifies the parent or school about a potential problem, it also provides them with information and recommendations on what to do next.
So, if a child is looking up ways to harm themselves on the internet, the app will alert the parent and then provide them with reading material about mental health and how to talk to their kids about self-harm.
The app's creators say they have successfully alerted parents and the FBI to 16 credible school shooting threats.
“One example of how that worked is a child had written on a bathroom wall at school, ‘Don’t come to school tomorrow, bang, bang.’ Another child took a photo of it and uploaded it to Snapchat, and our algorithm flagged that and alerted a parent and the parent called the school and the school shut down,” Jordan said.
The app costs $9 per family per month but is free for schools. The creators say the more time children spend online or interacting with their phones, the more necessary tech monitoring becomes.
“Ideally, that’s where we need to be looking for those first signs, whether they are Googling how to cause harm to somebody or construct a homemade weapons, etc. You can step in and address those issues much earlier,” Jordan said.
The app’s creators say they have also helped detect 10,000 incidents where students were contemplating or threatening self-harm.
“Suicide is the second-leading cause of death in that demographic and because they are going to Google to search for a variety of things, because they are turning to Snapchat and Instagram and Twitter to express the signs of anxiety or stress, that’s the first place I would look,” Jordan said.
Any time the idea of monitoring technology comes up, however, there are privacy concerns. The company says it understands the balance parents are trying to strike between protecting their child from harm and respecting their privacy.
However, they believe their app is minimally invasive, protects privacy and helps parents strike that balance.
“The benefits greatly outweigh the risks in this case,” Jordan said.
In the end, though, the app’s creators say this is only one tool of many parents and school districts can use to keep their children safe.
“This is not the end all, be all, check this box and we’re done with it. But it is one element of what, like I said, is a comprehensive safety assessment,” Jordan said.
The most important tool, however, might be the parents themselves talking to their children and encouraging them to open up to them.
“You need to be having these tough conversations much earlier than you would anticipate,” Jordan said.