My favorite TechCrunch Disrupt startup: Bark

The TechCrunch Disrupt conference is always an interesting litmus test of the industry and this week’s event in New York did not disappoint. My favorite part of the conference is the Startup Battlefield, where sometimes whimsical, sometimes world-changing products are presented by teams from all over the world. This time, one finalist caught my attention: Bark, used for monitoring children’s mobile activity in a smart, trust-building way.

Their stated mission is to “help keep your children safe online,” but that doesn’t say much. Bark follows it up by explaining what their service does, and what challenges parents face, and I think they’ve nailed it. Bark says that most of the applications that allow parents to supervise their child’s mobile activity require either going through their phone occasionally, and launching different apps and going through messaging, or logging in as them on the different social networks. This kind of shows parents content they don’t need or want to see and, in the end, doesn’t build trust as children feel exposed.  As a result, they may choose to have their conversations in apps and services their parents cannot easily monitor.

Bark tries to solve this problem by externally monitoring the social apps that children use, and use machine learning algorithms, not just keyword searching, to detect language and images that could be problematic. Bark focuses on detecting cyber-bullying, sexting, and signs of distress. If something is detected, parents are notified and action is suggested.

Bark's "high risk, take action" notification screen. Source: Bark

Bark’s “high risk, take action” notification screen.
Source: Bark

I also like that Bark has thought about the solution from the children’s perspective. They prefer Bark to parental snooping because the latter makes them feel “like they have no privacy or ability to socialize independently,” per Bark’s CEO Brian Bason. This is why, he adds, children agree to help parents set up access to their accounts, which is necessary for Bark’s monitoring to work.

Bark currently supports only 15 apps, though these are the major ones. I don’t see Google Hangouts or Voice as supported apps, and I don’t see Snapchat, which is where the kids hang out today and has the potential, based on the nature of ephemeral messages, to be the most harmful. I am sure that Bark realizes that it has to constantly work to support new applications and their CEO said as much in their presentation.

Beyond supporting new applications, I did see three other potential issues:

  1. Supporting multiple accounts on the same service. Sometimes kids like starting over, creating a new account for different audiences, etc. I have heard this said more about Facebook than any other app, as most of a child’s older (read: less cool) family members tend to be there.
  2. Installing new apps. Kids are independent, friends recommend an app and they download, install, create a profile, before parents have a chance to react. Bark does support notifications for “risky app installs” so that might help here, depending on what Bark sees as risky.
  3. Changing privacy settings on apps. Some social apps, Instagram for one, allow private accounts, where the content the user posts is seen only by approved followers. What happens when kids change these settings?

Here’s the scariest part: in the presentation, Mr Bason said that “since its soft launch in February, Bark has analyzed more than a million messages, and found that 52 percent of its user base had at least one problem identified via its software.” That’s mind-blowing. It’s pretty clear that both kids and parents need the service Bark provides.

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