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Harvard undergrad wins $300,000 for anti-bullying app

Trisha Prabhu’s app, ReThink, gently urges users to avoid using insulting or hostile language

Trisha Prabhu is the founder of ReThink.
Trisha Prabhu is the founder of ReThink.Elevate Prize Foundation

A junior at Harvard University is about to receive a big payoff for her seven-year campaign against cyberbullying. Trisha Prabhu, 20, will get at least $300,000 from the Elevate Prize Foundation to further develop ReThink, a smartphone app that nudges people into using more courteous language online.

The grant is just the latest accolade for Prabhu, whose work earned her a White House visit during the Obama administration and a 2016 appearance on the ABC television series “Shark Tank,” where she persuaded entrepreneurs Mark Cuban and Lori Greiner to invest in ReThink.

“It’s been an incredible ride, and not one I imagined at 13,” said Prabhu, a native of Naperville, Ill., who is studying political science and computer science at Harvard.

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In middle school, Prabhu endured some bullying but shrugged it off. She later learned about other children who had suffered far worse, in some cases committing suicide.

“I realized this is impacting so many young people out there,” she said. “This is unacceptable.”

So Prabhu channeled her outrage into a science project. She surveyed 500 high schoolers and found they were less likely to make insulting comments if they were encouraged to think about their words before speaking. The results of the survey inspired Prabhu to develop ReThink.

The no-cost app substitutes its own keyboard for the onscreen ones found on Apple or Android phones and works with virtually any messaging app, including Twitter and Facebook. The app monitors the words typed by the user and pops up subtle messages when it detects a swear word or insult. For instance, the user might see “Would you like to reword this?”

ReThink doesn’t censor speech. The user can choose to go ahead and type the insult. But Prabhu believes many people will take the app’s advice to heart and mind their manners.

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Prabhu said that schools in 134 countries have formed ReThink chapters that encourage students to use the app, and it’s being used by some 5 million students worldwide. Now Prabhu is looking for ways to generate revenue without relying on intrusive onscreen ads or collecting users' sensitive personal data. Instead, she’d like to sell add-on services, such as a parental-control feature to let adults limit their children’s social media exposure by locking the keyboard.

The Elevate Prize Foundation will support ReThink as it upgrades the product and provide business advice and mentoring. The foundation was launched by a Boston native, Joseph Deitch, former chief executive of Commonwealth Financial Network, in partnership with MIT Solve, a social innovation project sponsored by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.





Hiawatha Bray can be reached at hiawatha.bray@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @GlobeTechLab.