Disclaimer: Sensitive material ahead.
“Be the reason someone smiles today,” the cheerful Facebook graphic shouts at me. The scrolly script against a pink background urges me to do something kind for someone else, a sentiment I can always get behind, regardless of how I feel about paisley prints and strange font kerning. I click away from the website and boil water for today’s umpteenth cup of caffeinated green tea.
Last night was the worst work night we’ve had in awhile. At the end of last year, I left the freelance world to join a company full-time. Giving up workplace autonomy had never been on my radar, but this felt like the all the right things at all the right times. I joined on as Creative Director to a startup that is committed to keeping kids safe on their internet-connected devices. Fairly niche, perhaps, as I’ve enjoyed working with a variety of companies, but I’ve long recognized the dangers of kids and iPhones, and realized that tweens with smartphones is the next step for me in my parenting journey. I loved what Bark was doing, and I happily joined a team that was and is making a difference.
Bark, essentially, lives quietly in the background of a child’s device, monitoring texts, email, and social media channels, and only alerting parents when there’s a potential issue at hand. So instead of delivering every text or meme a kid might send or receive, it offers some parent/child trust building and acts as a safety net. We monitor for issues of cyberbullying (happens to half of teens), sexting, adult content, online predators, depression, suicidal ideation (1 in 10 high school girls will attempt to commit suicide this year), eating disorders (80% of 10-year-old girls have been on a diet), etc. It all feels a little macabre, but I know the work is important, and emails letting us know we helped parents intervene in a case of suicidal ideation is enough to keep us all working long days and late nights as needed.
Like yesterday. Our artificial intelligence picked up a string of conversations on a school account. Brian, our CEO, looped a few of us in, and we quickly realized how dire the situation was. A 30-something-year-old man was grooming a tween girl (that is, a girl under 13) on the girl’s school-issued Google accounts. I was whisked back to a trip to SE Asia with an NGO fighting human trafficking. I had been sitting on a chair with wood arms and vinyl cushion that had glued itself to the backs of my bare thighs, sweat beading up on my forehead, and a dozen or so manila folders splayed open in front of us, each a pedophile case. Outside, a dozen or so kids played basketball. We were in an aftercare facility for the victims.
When I tell that story, I recognize that we’ve all got a little bit of cognitive dissonance. It’s another country, another culture, another socioeconomic segment. There’s a disconnect for some people that likely disappears when the same scenario is made more “close to home.” This is here in a quiet American suburb, with a victim who could be my daughter’s classmate, or my friend’s child. Typical tween with brown hair and braces, who probably also drags her mom around Justice, pointing at tops flashy enough to cause mild seizures.
This morning, we’re full steam ahead. Brian’s on the phone with the FBI. I’m on the phone with the school’s principal and IT director. The algorithms are once again combing all of the school’s accounts for signs of similar abuse. Titania’s preparing to meet with 100 parents to talk about smartphone usage and safety. The Bark team gets on video chats and while we seem disaffected and even clinical, saying words like “predator” and “child pornography” and “coercion,” we all recognize how soul-eroding it is to be privy to some of the world’s worst. The FBI is on its way to the school. The perpetrator claimed to live more than 1,000 miles away, but they’ll suss out whether that’s true or if he lives down the road. We say phrases like “potential kidnapping” and “luring” and our stomachs collectively churn.
I’m quiet as I get on the phone with the principal again. She says that the girl told her that the predator had been communicating with other girls in her town. I listen as she speaks and type a note to Brian to let him know. He relays to the FBI. The principal and I discuss the painful task of breaking it to the girl’s parents. I voice my concern that this girl not be viewed as anything other than a victim of a horrific crime. “She’s a baby,” I hear myself say, and it might seem a little strange to refer to anyone older than a toddler in that way, but how else do you describe a completely vulnerable child being preyed on by the worst the world has to offer? I relax a little when she emphatically agrees and believes that the parents will be compassionate every step of the way.
“Thank you,” she says of the whole team. “You’re saving our kids.” I make a note to pass that along in our Slack channel. The district had signed up for Bark (we have a paid Bark for Parents program, but we give Bark to schools for free as a community service) just a few days ago — largely, I suppose, to monitor high schoolers. They hadn’t expected this issue, and I suppose no one really does.
I rapid-text a few close friends. “Promise me you won’t get your kids a smartphone without getting a monitoring service to go with it.” I let out a few choice profanities and recognize that I’m clearly speaking from a place of frustration.
“This is the worst part of what we do,” Brian says. “But it’s also the best in that we’re helping — no one would have known this was happening otherwise.” We all agree (albeit a little forlornly) and I’m proud to be a part of this team. That same damn Facebook graphic pops up again. I don’t know if we made anyone smile today, but we helped prevent a predator from victimizing more children. And that will do for today.