AI systems could fight cyberbullying

Smart software could detect online bullying via a database system that can identify even the subtlest of abusive comments

“I have been bullied my entire life. About how I look like a whale and how im not pretty enough. I cant get boyfriends because i refuse to have sex until I am married. I just dont know what to do anymore…:\” – Samantha, 16

Pleas for help like this one appear on social media and internet forums every day, written by desperate teenagers who live their entire lives online. Knowing you’re not alone can help. That’s the idea behind new software that matches up such messages with similar posts from other worried teenagers, letting them know that what they’re experiencing isn’t unusual. It might also be possible to spot bullying behaviour as it happens online.

Recent high-profile cases have made cyberbullying front page news. In January, 15-year-old Amanda Diane Cummings died after jumping in front of a bus on Staten Island, New York. She’d been subjected to a campaign of bullying on Facebook by other pupils at her school. Last September, Jamey Rodemeyer, a 15-year-old boy from Buffalo, New York, killed himself after being teased online about his sexuality. The cases sparked lawmakers to push through legislation, passed by the state senate last week, that makes cyberbullying a crime.

To help tackle one part of the problem, Karthik Dinakar at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and colleagues have been working on a project that analyses the posts written by teenagers on A Thin Line, a website run by MTV. The site encourages teenagers to post their problems anonymously and other teenagers leave comments giving advice. Many of the posts concern bullying and worries about sex.

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