The beginning

How cyberbullying influenced the founding of SafeToNet

Tim died three weeks after we’d spoken in my car as we waited outside the Royal Berks hospital in Reading. I was a volunteer driver for a cancer care trust, shepherding children by car to and from essential care. Tim was one of my “regulars”. I remember him as a lively 13 year old who was amazingly positive and cheery given his terminal condition but on this day everything was different. He had been quiet on the journey and as we pulled up at the hospital I turned towards him and saw him quietly sobbing with tears rolling slowly down his face. It was the first time I’d seen him down or upset about any of his treatment or even because of his cancer. He knew he was dying, so I guess I was expecting something like this at some point.

What I wasn’t prepared for was the actual reason for his upset, which he managed to explain through those sob-filled gulps of breath we all have at moments of intense distress. It turned out his so-called friends were ridiculing him about his chemo-induced hair loss. Online. On Instagram. A behaviour I was later to know as “cyberbullying”. It was a clear reminder of how cruel children can be to each other.

I went to his funeral.

Tim’s death sparked a flame blended of injustice, shame, helplessness and anger that someone so vulnerable could be so harshly treated at such a time in his life, by people that knew him, knew what he was going through. Little did I then know what I would come to learn and experience later, as I resolved to do what I could to make sure cyberbullying didn’t happen to another child.

My background had been as an entrepreneur, a business man, and I’d had some success creating and selling technology oriented businesses. I’d decided to take an extended sabbatical from the at times frenetic and unrelenting world of deals, of contracts, of profit and loss, but the flame lit by the spark of Tim’s untimely death and awful treatment got me thinking about how technology could be brought to bear on a solution. I knew I had to understand more about the mental health issues associated with being a child living in a digital age. It wasn’t long before I found an opening and was appointed as a NED (non- executive director) of an NHS primary care trust. It was to be a steep and sometimes upsetting learning curve.

At the time the solution from a technical perspective seemed pretty straightforward – give parents or carers an on/off switch on their smart phones so that they could allow and deny their child’s access to social media sites where it seemed anyone could get access at any time to any child anywhere.

This type of functionality turned out to be harder to implement than we imagined, especially on Apple’s iOS devices where remotely manipulating the state of a phone or tablet is a cumbersome, challenging and technically flawed concept. Our research into parental controls software showed a fragmented market with no clear differentiation but moreover, we learned that parental controls software does not tackle harmful messaging between children. Instead it is all about screen time management and commonly causes conflict at home between parents and their children.

Returning to my time in the NHS as an NED and my career background in behavioural analytics I wondered if somehow we could develop something that could track the online behaviours of predators. But technology doesn’t exist in a vacuum and there are some pretty substantial laws against doing that kind of thing, at least without the users’ consent. In any case, what predator or cyberbully would consent to such tracking?

When we looked at the entire technology “stack” that’s used on a smart device to get children online we realised that there was a common denominator across all social media sites and other communications tools such as texts that could be changed, and that was the keyboard.

As we explored this idea further and developed prototypes, included children in its design through a Youth Advisory Board and engaged with subject matter experts in the law, culture and technology of online safety, we realised a number of things:

  • Developing an app that focussed solely on children placed the responsibility for child online safety on the child;
  • This would result in victim blaming when it all went wrong;
  • The best form of online child safety involves parents, but parents were often at a loss to understand how to engage in meaningful conversations with their children about social media;
  • We had to involve parents but not expose to them the private world of their children as we felt an overriding duty to respect the children’s rights to privacy. 

By embedding AI at the heart of an alternative keyboard, we could “contextualise” the outbound messages that children were sending. We could allow ordinary social conversations to take place but intervene in real time if the AI detected that the child was veering towards risk and harm. By this time our understanding of abuse had expanded beyond bullying online or cyberbullying, to include sexually inappropriate messaging (sexting), self-harm and “dark thoughts”.

By including a linked Parent’s app, we could provide the parent with advice and guidance about social media. We could share with the child and the parent a simple overview graph of the child’s movement towards or away from online risk. With the AI keyboard we could nudge the child’s online behaviour in real time so they made safer choices. And we could encourage each to talk to the other in a non-invasive but informed way.

Every time I use our product, every time I demonstrate it or talk about it, I think of Tim and ponder how our technology might have stopped those friends ridiculing and bullying him. It wouldn’t have prevented his death but it would without a shadow of doubt meant that his last few days were not saddened by the cruelty of others.

Richard Pursey, Group CEO SafeToNet

Richard is a serial entrepreneur with a background in behavioural analytics having successfully started and sold a number of technology companies. Prior to co-founding SafeToNet, Richard spent time working in the voluntary sector and would drive children suffering from cancer to hospital for treatment. He learned much by talking to the children about their lives and in particular their online experiences. Richard also previously served on the board of the West Berkshire NHS Primary Care Trust, where he was exposed to the brutal reality of being a child in today’s online world and the mental health issues associated with online harms. 


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