"I was shocked, heartbroken, and angry. How could a girl younger than me be pushed to take her own life? I started thinking about what I could do to stop this from ever happening again."
Indian American teen Trisha Prabhu talks about her inspiration behind developing a software to tackle cyberbullying, 'which is a reality for thousands of adolescents across the world.'
One day in 2013, Trisha Prabhu came home from school to read a news story about an 11-year-old girl who had committed suicide due to repeated cyberbullying.
'Go kill yourself. Why are you still alive? You are so ugly'
These words on social media caused 11-year-old Rebecca Sedwick to commit suicide.
"I was shocked, heartbroken, and angry. How could a girl younger than me be pushed to take her own life? I started thinking about what I could do to stop this from ever happening again," says Trisha.
An earlier, and far more personal, tragedy had nudged her life in this direction five years ago.
"My beloved aunt was killed in a road accident in India involving distracted driving, I was 10 years old," Trisha, who lives in Illinois, shares.
Children find creative ways to cope with grief. She chose research.
"I have always been fascinated by the inner workings of the human brain. I worked on my school science project to study the cognitive distractions of motorists, and developed a software to study reaction times with and without distractions," she says.
Years later when she read about the little girl's suicide and resolved to do something about it, she turned to the same subject that had helped her overcome her aunt's death.
Trisha says, "My love for unravelling secrets of the brain has helped me create and roll out ReThink software to tackle cyberbullying, which is a reality for thousands of adolescents across the world."
To come up with a solution to this toxic problem that pervades our generation, Trisha immersed herself in the subject matter.
She says, "When I read that news story about cyberbullying suicide, I wondered what caused adolescents to actually post mean or hurtful messages on the Internet? For that year's school science fair, I performed a preliminary science project to analyse whether age affects the willingness to post hurtful messages. The results did not surprise me. Adolescents were 50 per cent more willing to post hurtful messages than adults."
While researching about the development of the adolescent brain, one particular component captured her attention.
"There is one single part of the brain (the prefrontal cortex) that takes close to 25 years to fully develop, and it is responsible for decision-making skills. Don't we have a problem here? Could this be why adolescents make rash, impulsive decisions? Could this be why they are more willing to post hurtful messages on the Internet?"
She started to think about how she could incorporate this question into a solution for cyberbullying.
Focussing on this impulsive nature of the teenage brain, ReThink is a software product that aims to stop cyberbullying before the damage is done.
Trisha's research found that 93 per cent of the time teens would refrain from cyberbullying if they had to rethink the consequences of their behaviour.
ReThink is designed to make that 93 per cent a reality.
On her website, Trisha writes that an independent study found that the overall willingness of the average adolescent to post an offensive message reduced from 71 to 4 per cent.
But for teens willing to indulge in cyberbullying in the first place, what would be their motivation to install a software like ReThink on their phones or computers? Trisha says that ReThink is not just an app. It is a movement, one that parents and teachers are on board with.
In the case of Rebecca, the 11-year-old girl whose suicide prompted this initiative, she was bullied for a year and a half before she jumped to her death from her town's water tower.
It's one thing when ReThink's prompts halt the impulsive attempts at cyberbullying. But surely, a-year-and-a-half-long sustained campaign of maliciousness cannot be grounded in impulsiveness, or can it?
How would ReThink tackle that?
Trisha says she is not naive enough to think that all cyberbullies are operating from a place of misguided intentions. Evil exists here assuredly. But this evil has been allowed to thrive, without check.
A software might be a weak opponent when facing off the human willpower, but it is a powerful ally to the human conscience.
Trisha says she designed ReThink to be a tool for behaviour modification.
When faced with the pangs of their own conscience, even the hardened of bullies would have to rethink their destructive choices.
Which brings us to one to the most obvious questions of them all: Why would prospective bullies install an app that seeks to censor their behaviour?
Trisha says that ReThink's marketing strategy targets parents and educators.
"We want to involve kids to stand up for their friends, make good decisions for themselves. But that's not how it always works. So we primarily work with parents and educators and propose ReThink as an alternative to parental control. Rather than snooping through your child's phone at night or, worse, not know what they do on social media at all; ReThink provides a medium for accountability and instilling moral and behavioural values."
The non-intrusiveness is a critical factor because, as Trisha points out, "This is an age when we are trying to break free and become our own persons."
Apart from her cognitive research work and her duties as the CEO of ReThink, Trisha has authored four books.
It is always intimidating to speak to child prodigies about their groundbreaking work, mostly because the correlation between their age and achievements defy logic. Trisha asserts that her achievements are not despite her age. They are because of it.
"When I was seven years old, I read a kid's version of a book about the climate change and its negative effects called The Inconvenient Truth written by the then Vice-President of USA. I remember worrying about the Panda Bears that may die if all the ice melted away. I wrote to the mayor of the City of Naperville and requested him to join the Kyoto Treaty. I also sat down for weeks to design a car that would run on wind and water. I have never felt restricted or challenged by my age. As a child, my view point of life was much different than that of the grown-ups. It allowed me to look beyond the obvious solutions to problems to think simple, innovative solutions," she says.
There are examples of small wonders using their pocket money to fund their start-ups.
Trisha went one step further. "I have spent some of the prize money that I have received from various competitions directly into ReThink project to make it happen," says the TED speaker and Google science fair finalist.
ReThink has been critically acclaimed and Trisha has been applauded on various stages around the world. But Trisha shares two reactions that were most meaningful to her:
"I received a handwritten letter from a retired teacher telling me that she was being repeatedly cyber-bullied by her adult adopted daughter. She wrote that ReThink would not only help young kids but also adults. The other moment was when I received an email from a young girl stating that her friend is in the hospital because she has been cutting herself lately due to repeated cyberbullying.
She thanked me for caring about this silent pandemic."
Trisha's scaling plans revolve around releasing ReThink in non-English speaking markets. She says, "My goal is to get ReThink into the hands of every adolescent around the world –at no cost to them. I am working on getting ReThink out in various international languages soon."
In a culture glorifying youth, child achievers get heaped with the most adulation. Trisha distances herself from the toxicity of these expectations by removing the personal from the equation.
She says, "I have been blessed to be recognised and awarded for my efforts, but I do not consider success from ReThink as my own personal success. Several implementation challenges with ReThink has kept my curiosity, wonder, and creativity up and running."
Her clashes with failure also keep her grounded. She says, "I have learnt to pick myself up when I fall down. I've learnt what matters the most is to gain from the journey and the experiences along the way and not necessarily be fixated on the outcome."
Trisha's favourite subjects in school are English, history, and science. "Each one of them provides a fascinating insight into how as humans we have come so far," she explains.
For the future though, she has but one plan.
"I love brain sciences. I am fascinated by the secrets of the brain. I see myself pursuing cognitive neurosciences. But, what matters most for me is to keep making positive changes around me. As a change-agent and a social entrepreneur, if I am able to make a positive difference in this world, no matter how big or small it is, I would consider myself to be on the right track."
A word of advice from the teenager who has been studying the human brain and behaviour for the past five years:
"You do not have to wear a white lab coat or have Albert Einstein's hair to make great inventions or come up with breakthrough ideas. Look around yourselves, find a problem that you are passionate to solve, work hard towards it to find solutions and you will be surprised in what you can achieve."