How this new tool can help parents prevent teen suicide

In the fight against rising teen suicide rates in Ohio, machine learning gives parents new tools to find out when their kids might be in trouble.

Bark is one company that allows parents to monitor their child’s social media and connected devices for potential red flags of suicidal thoughts, self-harm and cyber-bullying, as well as inappropriate sexual content, threats of violence or school shootings.

The company’s data shows that nearly 46 percent of teens engaged in conversations about depression or anxiety last year, said Titania Jordan, chief parenting officer for Bark. But they are expressing those thoughts online to their peers, often hidden from their parents’ view.

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Many parents monitor devices manually, but reading everything a teen sends to their friends can be time consuming and viewed as an invasion of their privacy.

Bark’s technology constantly scans the child’s social posts, texts, videos, emails and more, but only alerts parents when there is something of concern.

The app costs $9 a month or $99.00 a year, per family.

Machine learning helps identify what is a real concern and what is just kids joking with their friends.

“(Machine learning is) having a computer use vast amounts of data, look for associations, look for a clustering of information that may have common interests,” Steven Gollmer, Cedarville University professor of physics said.

Gollmer is an expert on machine learning.

“The technology, I think, works to an extent,” he said. “The more data you have, the more opportunity you have to find something that’s relevant. But it’s also easy for it to get lost and find some associations that are irrelevant.”

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Bark says it has analyzed more than 2 billion data points of 3.5 million children, so its algorithms can spot trends in how kids speak and adjust as slang and acronyms change. The technology monitors more than 35 apps, websites, email, text and web browsing products commonly used by kids. It also can alert parents when their child has downloaded secret “vault” apps that can be hidden on smart phones.

“It seems like it has a pretty broad range,” said Paula Cosby, director of external affairs for Montgomery County Alcohol, Drug Addiction and Mental Health Services. The agency wasn’t familiar with Bark’s product, but Cosby said it appears to be a useful tool for parents and something they’d like to learn more about.

One mom told Bark she had noticed changes in her 12-year-old and sensed something was off. She installed the monitoring program on her daughter’s devices, Jordan said, and got an alert that the pre-teen had searched for how to kill herself.

“This gives them insight and, in some cases, reassurance,” that their instincts are correct, Jordan said.

The technology is not meant to do the parent’s job for them, she said. “It’s a tool for parents but does not replace honest and ongoing communication.”

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Bark’s alerts also come with advice for parents on what to do next, provided by mental health professionals.

The first thing a parent should do if they find out their child has expressed thoughts about depression or suicide is to talk to them about it, said Julie Stucke, a child psychologist at Dayton Children’s Hospital.

“Let their child know that they are aware and that they are very worried about it,” she said.

The idea of a monitoring system that sends alerts to parents is a good one, Stucke said.

“It means they don’t have to grab their kid’s phone every evening … and it allows parents to not feel like they are snooping all the time,” she said.

Her other advice for parents is to not overreact immediately when something questionable pops up.

“Sometimes they do look things up out of curiosity,” she said. “Just talk to them about it.”

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Bark also offers a school version of its technology so districts can monitor and restrict content on student computers. All 16 public school districts in Montgomery County subscribe to a social media monitoring system similar to Bark, called Social Sentinel.

If Social Sentinel notices something suspicious on a public social media post or internet page, it sends an alert to a school administrator so they can see what was posted and whether it needs to be investigated.

Staff writer John Bedell contributed to this report.

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