Many people send offensive messages without thinking twice, so this 15-year-old is giving them a chance to rethink their decision.

By Hana Hong
August 06, 2020
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It’s safe to say that the coronavirus pandemic has seen a big surge in a lot of different areas—our Netflix watch history and snack consumption rate, among others. But with the rise of Internet use and virtual learning, quarantine has also seen a significant uptick in something not as light: cyberbullying. 

In fact, an April 2020 report published by L1ght, an AI-driven startup that helps detect and filter abusive and toxic content online, found hate speech between children and teens on social media and in chat forums increased 70 percent since students transitioned to distance learning. In this new era of online learning, when pretty much everyone and their classes are probably online, it’s impractical to have children off devices entirely.

15-year-old Gitanjali Rao, founder of Kindly
Gitanjali Rao/voicesofyouth.org

Cyberbullying is a pandemic of its own, but it’s certainly not a new one. According to the i-SAFE foundation, over half of adolescents and teens have been bullied online, and about the same number have engaged in cyberbullying. Burdened by these alarming statistics, 15-year-old Gitanjali Rao decided to combine her passions for STEM and helping others to design an initiative that helps students feel safer online. 

Her answer was Kindly, an online service that uses the latest developments in Artificial Intelligence to detect and prevent cyberbullying, especially in schools. It currently offers two options: sample front-ends (including a Chrome extension) and a standalone app made custom for Kindly. 

“I like to spread the message of kindness and its importance in our community,” said Gitanjali in a recent blog posted by UNICEF, which is partnering with her on the new project. “I like to use technology to solve problems in our community and hopefully inspire others to be kind to self, community, and environment.”

So how does the service work? The goal is to eradicate bullying messages before they’re ever sent. The downloadable front end consists of a Chrome extension and plug-in that can be used for online web browsers (Twitter, Instagram, Gmail, etc.) and an app that can be downloaded on mobile. 

Both systems are built with a growing database of trigger words and phrases that could be offensive and the sophisticated program is intuitive. When the algorithm detects bullying text such as "You are ugly and not good for school" or "I will hurt you in school today," the app will display a popup with a bullying warning and block any further edit or function. The background of the editing area will remain green if there are no bullying words and will turn red if the message still has bullying words. Any less harsh “teasing” keywords, such as "You are odd and do not fit in" or "You are always lazy to do the work," will display a popup with a teasing warning but allow it to continue editing. 

Her genius innovation has already earned her a Gloria Barron Prize for Young Heroes and a partnership with Children’s Kindness Network, an organization that promotes anti-bullying messages.

The app is still in beta version, meaning Rao is still developing more ways to improve the service. She is also looking to expand her Kindly network with more innovations—the site recently sent out an open call asking people to come up with a front-end for Kindly similar to the existing chrome extension and standalone app. 

If you’re interested in downloading the service for yourself or your kids, you can access both of them for free on Rao’s website. You can also read her most recent post on UNICEF, which breaks down the concept of Internet safety and how to navigate social connections.

“It’s our turn to make a difference in society and to do what’s best for our peers. I wanted to share this with you to empower all of you to make a change in your life about how you use technology,” says Rao. “One kind message, one person saved from suicide, and one person feeling safer on the internet is a success for all of us.”

If you are a victim of cyberbullying, please know that there are references and resources that can help. In addition to reaching out to a trusted mentor, teens and young adults ages 13to 24 can contact STOMP Out Bullying at 1-877-602-8559, and anyone can reach out to STOP Cyberbullying at 1-201-463-8663.