A new app promises to help keep kids safe online by using special algorithms to detect emotions. The app can then alert parents when online threats surface. The upcoming Sophie iPhone app was developed by researchers in South Australia.  It uses Artificial Intelligence (AI) to alert people when children demonstrate emotional behavior such as anxiety or fear.

The app is centered around a third-party keyboard, which studies typing patterns to identify when a person is under duress while on the device.

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It first builds a psychological profile of a person to use as a base to identify abnormal reactions. Co-founder Ben Flink said he came up with Sophie after hearing about a friend’s child who had been contacted by an online predator through a computer game. He said there was a glaring need for better safety features on mobile devices because more children were logging on to the internet at a younger age with minimal protection or awareness of the risks.

“There are 17 million kids aged 12-17 years old on the internet on their mobile devices in the US alone and 10 per cent already admit to physically meeting up with strangers,” Flink said. “Predators like to illicit specific types of emotional and psychological responses from a child to build up a relationship and disenfranchise them from their existing network.”

Sophie uses machine learning to pick up on emotional cues and through its algorithms can alert the parent with an indicator that perhaps the child is talking to a predator.  According to the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children there are almost 850,000 registered sex offenders in the United States.

Sophie is intended to be a safety net for children who are first-time smartphone users. Similar to the way Fitbit watches track physical health and movement of the user, Sophie tracks language input on a Smartphone and monitors the mental well being of a child.

The app does this by studying the intensity, timing, tone and language of the user when they type and uses the information to determine a baseline of normal behavioral activity. Using a number of language and behavioral algorithms, the app searches for any significant variations in those categories. If there are any spikes of activity outside the child’s normal emotional range, an email is sent to the parents notifying them of the abnormal behavior. It provides them with relevant advice on how to address the situation.

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The app also can be used to report cyber crimes including child exploitation and cyber bullying to authorities. Flink said although other anti-predator apps focused on locking, blocking and filtering a child’s phone, children and predators could still work out ways to get around these approaches.

He said Sophie detected and analyzed all language input through any app on the phone, making it a more efficient and less restrictive protection technique. It can also help to protect children from online bullying and mental health issues. “It’s not just looking at key words or phrases but a whole input of behavior,” Flink said.

The app is expected to be available in the Apple App Store by summer.

~ Michael Siebenaler