PHOENIX (3TV/CBS 5) — Teachers and parents know kids love social media apps like TikTok and Instagram, but many worry about the dangers of using them. Instagram just pressed pause on developing a new app for kids, and the U.S. Senate plans to hold a hearing on Thursday, discussing the pressure today's youth face on social media. One Phoenix school is working to keep kids safer by looking at what they're typing online through artificial intelligence.
"We have purchased two different programs that work with algorithms of words that could be of concern," said Pam Hudgins, a school counselor at St. Thomas the Apostle. "These are connected to all of our student devices that are issued by the school."
The technology basically monitors kids on their school-issued computers. "It's like another pair of eyes watching what they're searching for," said mom, Susan Healy.
The programs look for keywords that could indicate bullying, depression, self-harm or violence. If a student emails a friend saying, for example, "I want to hurt myself," the programs would catch that and send an alert to school administrators.
Hudgins looks at every alert. "Typically, it's with another student that they're having a conversation using the device about they're sad, or there's something going on, or something they're concerned about," said Hudgins. She calls in the students or parents if it's serious. If kids try to turn off the programs or get onto blocked social media sites, Hudgins gets an alert for that too.
Katey McPherson is a regional sales manager with Bark for Schools. It's one of the programs used at St. Thomas the Apostle. "You would be surprised what kids upload to G Suite, to their drive, to hangouts, their chats, Excel spreadsheets," said McPherson. "They're using Google Docs to trade inappropriate nude photos."
Parents can buy Bark for personal devices. It picks up searches online, text messages and what your kid is saying on social media. If your child tries to turn the program off, you'll get an alert for that too. "Any sort of alert a parent can get to help mitigate, that is great," said Healy.