Two USF professors are trying to develop a program that will allow children to deal with their own problems anonymously.
Nathan Fisk, assistant professor of cybersecurity education in the USF College of Education, and Sriram Chellappan, associate professor in the USF department of computer science and engineering, received a grant for $498,333 from the National Science Foundation to research how to use metadata from the communications of children to provide early intervention and resources for possible problems the children might be facing. Fisk said they want to build a predictive model of distress.
“What we’re really looking to do with this particular project is talk to kids about how they prefer to be supervised, and how we can do supervision work and help guide them without violating their privacy,” Fisk said. “So we weren’t concerned as much with making another app or making an app at all that did the work of identifying cyberbullying. In some ways that’s not what we’re doing … we wanted to say we want to supervise kids, and kids kind of want supervision and guidance. They just also want privacy, and so how can we develop systems that can detect when kids are in some form of distress without violating their privacy.”
Their system will not collect message content. Instead, the two will gather metadata such as how many messages were received, what time they were received, whether or not they were replied to and other similar data points.
“We want to pick up data about the data, and then, so that way the privacy of the communication is also protected,” Chellappan said.
The idea behind the project, Fisk said, is that if someone is in trouble, their communication patterns will change predictably. Sometimes the best thing a child can have is a notification that provides resources for them to handle their problems, whether that’s notification of guidance counselors, parents, or law enforcement, or just links to web pages, Fisk said. Fisk and Chellappan want to talk to children to find out what they would prefer in a monitoring system.
“We can place into their hands the power to choose what to do and when if they have a problem,” Fisk said. “We’d like to protect their privacy, and we’d like to empower them to do what they feel are the appropriate next steps.”
The input of the children is also vital to Fisk and Chellappan because, they said, the children know better than adults what is a problem for them.
“We can’t just assume what those problems are, as we all too frequently do,” Fisk said.
For Chellappan and Fisk, this platform is all about protecting the privacy of the children.
“When people talk about cybersecurity in the past, privacy was always either you cared about it a little, or you never cared about it,” Chellappan said. “But now, privacy is becoming very, very important.”
The platform is designed to be completely anonymous, Fisk said. In addition to not collecting message content, their research will not collect phone numbers, names, or any other information that would identify the child.
“We don’t want to know anything about those things,” Fisk said. “We’re developing the platform specifically to make sure that we can’t know who they are.”
Chellappan and Fisk will collect metadata on communications from a sample size of about 1,000 middle school students. Fisk said they are looking to pull their sample from students in Pasco County, although he and Chellappan are discussing pulling from Hillsborough County as well. Fisk said the point where middle school students are in their lives made them the ideal candidates for the research.
“In middle school … you’re at a point in life where you’re starting to think about becoming an adult and being tired of being a younger kid with a lot more constraints,” Fisk said. “You can kind of see what’s going on in that adult world a little bit better, but you’re not there yet, and you’re not quite in that high school space where you have more freedoms, more access to power in the forms of jobs and cars and more easily accessible private spaces. So, you’re trapped in between those two worlds in a way that makes it harder to feel like you have any meaningful control over your own life.”
Before they get started, however, they have to lay out a lot of groundwork. They must develop the monitoring platform and the research platform, two separate applications. They also have to get approval from multiple layers of the International Review Board and gain parental permission for children participating in the study.
“It’s a long road,” Chellappan said. “It’s a very, very long road, and I only wish there were 48 hours in a day.”
Fisk said he would like to see this research platform be developed for use in social science spaces as a broader platform for any social scientist who wants to do research using metadata collection and survey analysis. He sees the potential for both platforms beyond this study. However, he said, their platform will never replace a child’s relationship with responsible adults to solve problems.
“At the end of the day … nothing is ever going to replace a strong, well-meaning relationship with trusted adults in the forms of parents and teachers who are going to be able to identify kids who are facing some kind of distress or abuse, but ideally this will be one more mechanism that will provide kids with a little bit more power when it comes to managing their own problems,” Fisk said.