• A new browser extension will highlight hurtful words as online users type. (AAP)Source: AAP
Like spellcheck for bullying, this new function is encouraging children and teenagers to think before they type.
By
Caitlin Chang

18 Mar 2016 - 11:59 AM  UPDATED 18 Mar 2016 - 2:14 PM

In an age of cyberbullying, it can be difficult for parents to protect their children all day, every day. But one new technology is aiming to prevent bullying behaviour before it even happens.

Launched on March 18, the National Day Of Action Against Bullying and Violence, reword is the first technology of its kind in Australia.

How does it work? Like the spellcheck function on your computer, it identifies cruel or bullying words and highlights them with a red line, prompting online users to rethink their message, Tweet or Facebook post.

The tool is a Google Chrome Extenstion (it will soon be rolled out for Safari and Firefox) and uses JavaScipt technology to pick up combinations of insults and matching words that can identify tone and intent.

It’s an important tool to help change cyberbullying behaviour in Australia, where around 463,000 young people are bullied online each year, according to research from the University of NSW.

The majority of interactions on Facebook are safe, but there are negative interactions as well. And those consequences can be pretty catastrophic.

“Sadly, online bullying is endemic,” Chris Tanti, CEO of headspace, Australia’s National Youth Mental Health Foundation said in a statement. “We’re encouraged that this is a tangible online tool that will genuinely help change behaviour and reduce incidents of bullying.”

For Tanti, this tool could address problems social media has with regulation. “Social media is self-regulating in lots of ways,” he tells SBS. “The majority of interactions on Facebook are safe, but there are negative interactions as well. And those consequences can be pretty catastrophic. We need to start to think about how we communicate, and I think this is a nice way of doing that.”

While playground bullying can be much more visible, to teachers and peers, the anonymity that comes with cyberbullying is a difficult field to navigate. “One of the main issues with online bullying, certainly for people who are support for young people, like families, is that it’s not visible,” Tanti explains. “The other problem is once it’s online; others can get involved in the bullying. And so it multiplies and becomes worse.”

We need to start to think about how we communicate, and I think this is a nice way of doing that.

“We have seen some pretty high-profile examples in Australia of people taking their own lives as a result of being harassed online,” Tanti warns. “It’s an extreme example but it does occur.”

In his work, Tanti sees cases where children feel depressed, anxious, intimidated, and not wanting to go to school as a result of online bullying. “The consequences can be pretty horrendous but once they present to you, you can manage it.” The problem is, when you’re dealing with bullying online, users “are often dealing with it on their own in silence.”

Tanti hopes that this tool, created in conjunction with advertising firm Leo Burnett, will help prevent online bullying before it starts, and stop the potentially tragic fall-out.

One of its best features is that it can be updated, to keep up with youth vernacular and identify new terms to add to the plug-in’s library of insults and hurtful words. Youth groups and three schools in Melbourne were involved in the creation and testing of reword, which encourages the online community to become co-authors of new bullying terms, giving young people ownership of the tool. 

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