Cyberbullying: Mom credits Bark app for saving teen's life

Bark has sent 20,000 severe self-harm alerts to parents.

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/ Source: TODAY
By Rachel Paula Abrahamson

Editor's note: This story discusses suicide. If you or someone you know needs help, please contact the National Suicide Prevention hotline at 1-800-273-8255, anytime.

When Julie Carroll’s 12-year-old daughter became distant and moody, she chalked it up to hormones and figured it would pass.

“I was very much in the dark about what was going on,” the Chicago mom told TODAY Parents.

“I received probably 150 alerts, including an internet search where she was searching for ways to kill herself.”

It wasn't until the real estate agent downloaded an app called Bark, which monitors kids' digital communications, that she learned her 8th grader was being bullied by a group of girls at school and online. One wrote on Snapchat that the teen "shouldn't be alive."

Bark monitors kids’ digital communications across texting, email and social media. This sample illustration (not a real alert), provided by Bark, shows the sort of information the app gives parents.Courtesy of Bark app

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“I received probably 150 alerts, including an internet search where she was searching for ways to kill herself,” Carroll revealed. "My daughter is alive today because we put her in a treatment program."

Titania Jordan, chief parenting officer at Bark, says it's common for parents to be in the dark about bullying — especially when it's happening online.

"Often victims suffer in silence for fear that adults will restrict digital access if they speak up," Jordan explained.

That's why it's important to know the signs of a bullied child, including changes in grades, behavior or appetite. If they are suddenly avoiding school or social activities, that's a red flag. Jordan also recommends observing kids' body language when they are using a device.

Children with autism, food allergies, racial minorities and members of the LGBTQ community are most at risk for cyberbullying, according to Jordan.

Carroll's teen is still struggling with her peers.

"I know exactly what is going on because of Bark," Carroll said, "So we talk about it, and we're dealing with it together."

To date, the tech company has sent more than 20,000 severe self-harm alerts.

“It’s searching for more than just key words, it’s looking for conversational nuances,” Jordan told TODAY Parents. “When it detects problems and serious issues like cyberbullying, sexual content or potential drug use, it will send mom or dad an alert via text or email.”

Jordan wants to be clear that Bark does not condone spying. Ideally, a parent will have an honest conversation with their child about why they are using the app, just like Jordan did with her 10-year-old son, Jackson.

“You don’t let a kid ride a bike without a helmet, you don’t allow to them to drive in a car without a seat," Jordan said, "so don’t give them a device that can access the world without a safeguard.”