As a new school year begins for millions of children across the United States, it’s a fitting time to look at startups that focus on helping protect kids from cyberbullying.
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Statistics show that a child is bullied every seven minutes. And, suicide is the third leading cause of death among young people, resulting in about 4,400 deaths per year, according to the CDC as cited by bullying statistics.org.
I’m a mother, and I know firsthand that parenting in this era is very different than parenting when I grew up. We didn’t have cell phones or social media accounts. There was bullying, for sure. But it was not of the cyber variety.
For Bark CEO Brian Bason, reality hit when his kids were old enough to have their own devices. The former Twitter exec had spent most of his career in either social media or mobile tech. But when it came to his own kids, Bason was unimpressed with the available options to help protect kids while online.
“I was well aware of the risks that come with giving our child an internet-connected device,” he told Crunchbase News. “But I realized that despite working in the space, I didn’t have a great solution as a parent.”
The idea of constantly monitoring his kids’ devices was unappealing to Bason. He also didn’t want to send a message to his kids that he didn’t trust them. Bason further felt a lot could slip through the cracks with “spot checking,” since kids can delete troublesome content in between those times.
“It’s an ineffective and time consuming way of monitoring and creates a huge problem with the relationship with your child,” he said.
So in 2015, he left Niche (where he was CTO when it was acquired by Twitter) and founded Bark, an Atlanta-based startup that uses artificial intelligence and conversational analysis to detect cyberbullying, suicidal ideation, and school shootings. In July, the company raised $5.6 million, an extension of the $9 million Series A (led by Utah-based Signal Peak Ventures) it had raised in August 2018. In total, Bark has raised $16.5 million, according to its Crunchbase profile.
In 2018, Bark analyzed over 900 million messages across texts, email, social media, and school-issued Google and Microsoft accounts of over 2.6M children ages 8-17. In 2019 alone so far, Bark has sent more than 3.6 million cyberbullying alerts. Today, the company says (in partnership with parents and schools) that it has helped “protect 3.5 million children, prevent 16 school shootings prevented and detected 10,000 severe self-harm situations.”
“We’ve invested heavily in some deep AI that can understand language contextually and that’s our secret sauce,” Bason said. “We can alert parents to things they need to know about without giving them access to all their kids’ messages. So their children still have privacy when things are going well but we’re still giving them a heightened level of awareness.”
The company has two products, one for families that costs either $9 per family per month or $99 a year. It also has a product for schools that it offers to districts that protects any school-issued device or account for free. Currently, over 1,300 school districts use its app.
Bark has seen impressive growth so far. Today it has over 40 employees, compared to eight a year ago. Revenue climbed by 400 percent year-over-year in 2018 and is on track to do the same in 2019, according to Bason.
Phil Williams, a vice president at Signal Peak, said his firm was attracted to Bark’s “unique” product that uses data science to not only address cyberbullying, but also problems such as sexting, drug use, depression and protecting children against predators, among others.
“We were immediately drawn to the team, execution and mission,” he said. “Bark is a product built by parents for parents.”
Although Bark represents his firm’s first investment in the child protection space, Signal Peak has backed other consumer startups targeting parents and families, such as Chatbooks, Home Bay, WildWorks and others.
Of course, Bark is not the only startup out there addressing cyberbullying. New York-based PlayNice has raised a known $250,000. There’s also San Francisco-based AfterSchool, a social network app for teens that has raised a total of $17.4 million since it was founded in 2014.
As a mother, and just as a human being, my heart breaks for a child or teen that is driven to such despair at the hands of someone else’s cruelty. So while I applaud the efforts of startups such as Bark, I wish we could come up with a solution to make these bullies stop with their meanness to begin with. That’s a gap that’s not being addressed.
Illustration: Li-Anne Dias