• Dr. Timothy Smith

Can AI Help Protect Children from Bullies?


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The worst enemy of a bully remains someone their own size who will confront them and expose them for who they really are. Bullies operate outside the gaze of authority, terrorizing their victims with the threat of physical and emotional violence. Studies show that bullies exhibit patterns in their behavior. Machines can learn such patterns. For that reason, artificial intelligence (AI) stands as a new ally to victims of bullying and their parents and teachers.

“Bullying is unwanted, aggressive behavior among school aged children that involves a real or perceived power imbalance. The behavior is repeated, or has the potential to be repeated, over time. Both kids who are bullied and who bully others may have serious, lasting problems.” “Bullying includes actions such as making threats, spreading rumors, attacking someone physically or verbally, and excluding someone from a group on purpose.” (stopbullying.gov)

Bullying impacts both short term and long-term health. Bullied kids have a higher incidence of depression and anxiety, health complaints, and lower academic performance. According to research compiled by Catey Hill for Marketwatch, bullies and the bullied both share a bleaker financial and personal adulthood. She writes in an article titled “Why Victims of Bullying End up poorer, Unhealthier, and Unhappier” that bullying has a more significant impact on health of bullying victims in the future. “Victims of bullying were 11% more likely to have negative financial outcomes than children not involved in bullying, and children who were both the victims and the bully, 31.6% more likely.” (Marketwatch.com) Bullying also predisposes people to poverty, dropping out of high school, and difficulty holding a job.

Beyond the school yard, social media has created new, unprecedented ways for people to interact by sharing text, photos, and videos in near real-time, but such a rapid and widespread form of communication has introduced a more significant and even more intractable forum for bullies. Social media persists around the clock. In the case of physical interaction, schools close each day, giving the bullied child a break when they get home; whereas, with social media, kids can get bullied around anytime of day with no place to hide.

“Prevalence of Cyberbullying and Predictors of Cyberbullying Perpetration Among Korean Adolescents,” published in Computers and Human Behavior Authors Changho Lee and Namin Shin. Study of Korean students from 7th to 12th grade showed that one third of the four thousand students in the study over one-third reported either being bullied (14%), bullying (6%), or both online (13%). Boys perpetrated more cyber bullying than girls. Girls’ cyberbullying focused more on relational violence. Relation violence refers to doing intentional damage to someone’s relationships or social status.

AI will serve an increasingly important role in combating bullying in the future. In the wake of a tragic suicide of a junior high school student victimized by bullying in 2011, the city of Otsu in the Shiga Prefecture of Japan determined to use AI to battle bullying in their schools. According to an article in The Japan Times titled “City of Otsu to use AI to Analyze Past School Bullying Cases with an Eye on Future Prevention,” the school will analyze 9000 past cases of bullying using AI to find patterns in the data to predict which incidents of bullying will become most acute. Information, such as age, gender of the victims and perpetrators, location and time of incidences, absenteeism, and grades among other pieces of information, will help build the system that will flag cases needing urgent attention. (japantimes.co.jp) Beyond the classroom, researchers from Greece and the UK led by Despoina Chatzakou demonstrated in a research article titled “Mean Birds: Detecting Aggression and Bullying on Twitter” that analyzing text and people’s social networks with the help of AI can uncover bullies on Twitter with a 90% accuracy rate (arxiv.org). Instagram has also worked for some time to use AI to identify bullying in images and comments. Alessandra Rizzo for nbcnewyork.com reported that Instagram uses AI to detect if comments constitute bullying and ask the commenter to reflect if they want to post the comment. The goal is that a moment of self-reflection may short circuit the rush to bully someone thoughtlessly.

Bullying in the real, physical world, on the playground, or online on social media platforms such as Twitter an Instagram exacts a significant toll on the bullied and even the bullies themselves. Research shows that many children and even adults suffer from bullying, leading to depression, health issues, and a drop in productivity. Moreover, bullying leads to poorer economic outcomes and social success. One of the first steps in combating bullies depends on exposing their cowardly and abusive behavior. At school, exposing bullying relies on observant teachers and the less reliable reporting by students. A pilot program in Japan looks to use artificial intelligence to notify teachers and parents of serious bullying an offer an opportunity for intervention. In the world of social media, AI continues to improve as a means of detecting online bullying, but it remains the subject of more research as to how to stop it. Instagram’s effort to make a bully think twice before posting sounds interesting, but it may need some more powerful AI that can expose the bullies to more considerable scrutiny by the public to indeed be effective.

Dr. Timothy Smith

Dr. Smith’s career in scientific and information research spans the areas of bioinformatics, artificial intelligence, toxicology, and chemistry. He has published a number of peer-reviewed scientific papers. He has worked over the past seventeen years developing advanced analytics, machine learning, and knowledge management tools to enable research and support high level decision making. Tim completed his Ph.D. in Toxicology at Cornell University and a Bachelor of Science in chemistry from the University of Washington.

You can buy his book on Amazon in paperback here and in kindle format here.

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