Clemson developing app to take on bullies

Clemson professors are developing an app to help combat cyberbullying.

A team of researchers at Clemson University is developing a one-of-a-kind app that could potentially stop a cyberbully in his or her tracks.

Thanks to a $240,000 grant from the National Science Foundation, four Clemson professors will spend the next two years building VC_Defender. The app would scan photos, videos and other data on social media sites such as Twitter, Facebook and YouTube for signs of cyberbullying, using technology similar to facial recognition software.

If bullying is detected, the app would alert the victim, his or her parents, a school administrator and even the perpetrator in real time.

“This app could potentially be a lifesaver for people,” said researcher Joseph Mazer. “It’s a really cool project to be part of because we’re obviously breaking new ground in the area of visual cyberbullying.”

Led by Hongxin Hu, an assistant professor at the School of Computing, the project combines the expertise of professors from three different disciplines. For the first phase of the app’s development, Mazer, an associate professor of communication studies, is working with psychology professor Robin Kowalski to study and analyze cyberbullying attacks using the university’s high-tech Social Media Listening Center.

The center allows the researchers to study and engage in more than 600 million sources of social media conversations. Mazer and Kowalski will identify common themes and patterns in cyberbullying attacks. They’ll develop a rubric which computer scientists Hu and Feng Luo, an associate professor in the School of Computing, will use to create a predictive model that can detect instances of cyberbullying.

“There’s no existing application that can do this kind of work,” Hu said.

Statistics on the prevalence of cyberbullying vary, but Kowalski estimates that 20 percent of middle-schoolers have been victims. Like traditional bullying, cyberbullying occurs when there’s a “power imbalance” between the aggressor and their target, Kowalski said.

Children who are bullied are more likely to suffer from anxiety, depression and low self-esteem. They’re also more likely to think about ending their lives.

But while traditional bullies might use their physical power to harass or harm a target, cyberbullies wield technological prowess to prey on the victim’s psyche, Kowalski said. And unlike traditional bullying, which usually occurs during the school day, cyberbullying “can happen 24/7,” she noted.

“The reason it’s so important is because kids that are victims of any type of bullying are very reluctant to tell,” she said. With traditional bullying, kids are often worried the perpetrator will lash out. With cyberbullying, “they’re usually afraid their parents will take the technology away.”

Cyberbullying, of course, isn’t just a schoolhouse phenomenon. According to Kowalski’s own research, cyberbullying has even infiltrated the workplace.

The Clemson professors said they hope the app eventually will be adapted for use among adults.

“Technology is changing so fast. Just when we feel like we have a handle on something, a new app gets developed,” she said. “There’s some new technology where people can cyberbully each other.”

Reach Deanna Pan at 937-5764.