Startup Bark Helps Parents Safeguard Kids' Mental Health Online

Bark uses AI to detect issues like cyberbullying, suicidal ideation, and school shootings.

10.09.2019 | by Kezia Parkins
Photo by Luke Porter on Unsplash
Photo by Luke Porter on Unsplash

The internet is an incredible, yet dangerous tool—especially for children and impressionable young adults.

Suicide is the third leading cause of death among young people, resulting in about 4,400 deaths per year, according to the CDC. For every suicide among young people, there are at least 100 suicide attempts and over 14 percent of high school students have considered suicide, with almost seven percent having attempted it.

Cyberbullying is a phenomenon that has been around since the dawn of the internet. However, teens and tweens are disproportionately at risk, and the rise of channels like Instagram, where appearance is everything, has not done much to aid in safeguarding this incredibly insecure and fragile age group.

When the child of Bark founder, former Twitter exec Brian Bason, was old enough to have their own devices, after spending most of his career working in social media, he still found the tech options offering child protection to be lacking.

“I was well aware of the risks that come with giving our child an internet-connected device,” he told Crunchbase News. “But I realized that despite working in the space, I didn’t have a great solution as a parent.”

Conscious of the difficult balance between parents and children who are fast becoming young adults and the importance they place on their privacy, Banson didn’t want to foster a relationship of distrust, nor did he want to actively monitor their activity.

“It’s an ineffective and time-consuming way of monitoring and creates a huge problem with the relationship with your child,” he said.

In 2015, Banson left his CTO position at Niche after it was acquired by Twitter and founded Bark, an app that employs artificial intelligence (AI) and conversation analysis to detect issues like cyberbullying, suicidal ideation and school shootings.

The platform was created in collaboration with child psychologists, youth advisors, digital media experts and law enforcement professionals and is available for both parents and schools.

After raising $5.6 million in July 2019, the LA-based startup raised has raised a total of $15.6 million according to CrunchBase. In August 2018, the company raised $9 million Series A, led by Utah-based Signal Peak Ventures.

The app connects to 24 platforms to monitor text messages, emails, and social activity for signs of harmful interactions and content.

Parents then receive automatic alerts via email and text when Bark’s algorithms detect potential risks and expert advice on how to make it easier for parents to talk to kids about digital dangers and other sensitive online issues

“We highly encourage families to have open discussions about online safety and how using Bark helps, and to engender trust with their children by giving them appropriate privacy online,” Titania Jordan, Bark’s “chief parent officer,” told TechCrunch last year. “Children appreciate that Bark does not give their parents the ability to read everything they’re doing.”

In 2018, Bark analyzed over 900 million messages across texts, email, social media, and school-issued Google and Microsoft accounts of over 2.6 million children ages 8-17.

Their data showed that:

  • 62.2% of tweens and 70.5% of teens experienced cyberbullying (as a bully, victim or witness)
  • 23.1% of tweens and 35.9% of teens were involved with a self-harm/suicidal situation
  • 55.9% of tweens and 72.1% of teens encountered nudity or content of a sexual nature
  • 31.9% of tweens and 45.6% of teens engaged in conversations about depression and/or anxiety
  • 56.6% of tweens and 61.6% of teens expressed or encountered violent subject matter/thoughts
  • 59.6% of tweens and 75.8% of teens engaged in conversations surrounding illegal drugs/alcohol

Bark reports that it currently protects 3.5 million children and, to date, has prevented 16 school shootings and has detected 10,000 severe self-harm situations.

Bark for schools is free and in use by more than 1,300 school districts in the US. It monitors G Suite and Office 365 accounts and alerts school administration to digital dangers.

Bark for families costs either $9 per month or $99 per year.

The company is experiencing impressive growth and today has over 40 employees, compared to eight a year ago. According to Bason, revenue has climbed by 400 percent year-over-year in 2018 and is on track to do the same in 2019.

“We’ve invested heavily in some deep AI that can understand language contextually and that’s our secret sauce,” Bason said. “We can alert parents to things they need to know about without giving them access to all their kids’ messages. So their children still have privacy when things are going well but we’re still giving them a heightened level of awareness.”

Bark has won awards from The National Parenting Center, Mom’s Choice Awards and National Parenting Product Awards.

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