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University receives grant to prevent cyberbullying

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Rutgers University received a grant expected to total $174,248 from the National Science Foundation (NSF) to develop a system that automatically detects cyber-bullying, said principal investigator Vivek Singh.

The project, entitled “CRII: CHS: Cyber-bullying Detection Using Content & Social Network Analysis,” aims to define newer approaches for automatic detection of cyber-bullying by integrating the relevant research in social sciences and computer science, said Singh, an assistant professor in the School of Communication and Information.

According to the research’s abstract on the NSF’s website, experts in social science have focused on personality, social relationships and psychological factors, involving both the bully and the victim, to better understand cyberbullying.

Computer science researchers have also developed automated methods to identify cyberbullying within messages by “text mining cyber conversations," according to their website.

"The main aim of the research is to come up with newer models and algorithms for automated detection of cyber-bullying," Singh said. "A sample computer program that tests out the concepts will be made publicly available for free at the end of the project."

The research will run for two years beginning July 2015, according the NSF's official website. During this time, Singh said a graduate student researcher and he will be testing different approaches and algorithms to identify the most suitable methods for cyber-bullying detection.

Singh said he expects the audience would be other researchers, programmers and enthusiasts who may want to integrate the idea into products that may have a broader audience.

"For example, a specific school district may want to create a safer Twitter app that employs the algorithm developed by this project to (automatically) flag cyber-bullying messages," he said.

According to a recent report by the National Crime Prevention Council, more than 40 percent of teenagers in the United States have reported being cyberbullied.

David Wilder, a professor in the Department of Psychology, said cyberbullying is more frequent and more easily accomplished than in-person bullying.

“Cyberbullying offers the cloak of anonymity, which frees bullies from fear of retaliation from victims or authorities, such as parents,” he said. “Furthermore, it's easy since anyone who is online can cyberbully.”

Compared to cyberbullying, Wilder said the traditional in-person bullying is “limited to direct physical or verbal intimidation,” while cyberbullying opens up various avenues of harm, such as photoshopping pictures of the victim or inundating the victim with messages.

He said cyberbullying is "psychologically easier" for participants to engage in because its consequences are less immediately apparent.

“One doesn't see the negative impact immediately, so any empathy for the victim is not present that might moderate in-person bullying,” Wilder said.

He said this allows the cyberbully to frame and rationalize his or her behavior as “just having fun.”

While Wilder said cyberbullying can be as destructive as in-person bullying as it contributes to anxiety, depression and unhappiness, in some respects it may be worse than in-person bullying.

Since acts on the Internet can be viewed by more people, Wilder said cyberbullying is more difficult to "erase" or forget than an instance of in-person bullying.

“Once in cyberspace, acts of bullying can be difficult to remove, so it can become a long-term source of humiliation,” he said.

Brian Chu, the director of the Youth Anxiety and Depression Clinic and associate professor in the Department of Clinical Psychology, said the particularly devastating nature of cyberbullying is that the attacks are permanently online.

“The incident continues to re-traumatize the victim because it is permanently stored online and can be shared amongst countless others, beyond the original circle of people the attack was intended for," Chu said. "There is literally no way for an individual to 'live it down.'”

Lauren Hoffman, a graduate student in the Department of Psychology, said the bulk of efforts currently being conducted against cyberbullying involve working with school systems to improve culture and climate inside the school community itself.

"I like the sound of Dr. Singh’s research, which will improve our understanding of the social atmosphere in which cyberbullying takes place and allow for enhanced supervision of online behavior," she said.

Hoffman said she also thinks it is important to educate parents and teachers about the social media sites, apps and blogs that teens are participating in, so they may be better suited to appropriately monitor and intervene if an issue arises.

"Ultimately, this may help improve the lives of thousands of victims who are cyberbullied each year," he said. "The generated data set will be made available to the larger research community, thus again enabling new findings that can help counter the social problem of cyberbullying."

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