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About a year since launching its own smartphone, Atlanta-based Bark Technologies has its hands full striving to protect kids from online abuse and harassment in the United States.
Slowly but surely, it’s making a dent: the startup’s monitoring software covers 6.8 million children, and the Bark Phone this month was named one of Time’s top 200 inventions for 2023.
The kid-safe phone was designed explicitly not to look like a child’s toy — it’s a bona fide Android smartphone, aimed at fixing a problem Bark has observed while keeping watch over kids’ social media, emails and messaging apps for instances of grooming, bullying, threats of self-harm and myriad other online dangers.
Algorithms, it turns out, can only do so much if the hardware allows workarounds for parental controls.
“Our algorithm is baked into the phone,” Chief Parent Officer Titania Jordan told Time. “It can’t be removed.”
The Bark Phone still has much room to expand in the U.S. But even months before it went live in late 2022, Bark had already recognized that its suite of tools — monitoring, screen time management and its Bark Home Internet filter, not to mention the phone — could be helpful (and potentially profitable) outside the U.S.
The company raised $30 million in a series C round with the explicit purpose of taking Bark into international markets that it had avoided as a potential distraction during its startup phase.
An “explosion of accessibility” led to a proliferation of platforms, from mainstays like Facebook and Instagram and SnapChat to newer apps like TikTok, that were exposed by congressional inquiry and whistleblower testimony as intentionally addictive and insufficiently protective for kids.
Then the pandemic brought an age of hyper-connectivity, with kids getting online earlier and for longer for schools that didn’t have the technical knowhow or resources to police issues.
“It was one of the worst things that could have happened to children and parents,” Ms. Jordan said, especially in situations with neuro-diverse kids or in homes where parents for reasons of work, health or otherwise couldn’t watch what their kids were doing — or pre-empt bad actors trying to take advantage.
“It’s less about adoption of social media and more about an increase of exposure to problematic issues and people,” says Ms. Jordan, who also founded the Parenting in a Tech World Facebook group with more than 410,000 users and co-authored a book of the same name. “The more time children are spending connected, the more they experience cyberbullying, thoughts of anxiety, depression, suicidal ideation, sexual content and online predation. Even if they are not seeking it out, these themes … are just pervasive.”
According to its annual report, Bark analyzed 4.5 billion messages from 10 to 17 year olds across 30-plus apps and platforms to alarming effect. A sampling of the finds: Two-thirds of tweens and 82 percent of teens encountered nudity or sexual content, while 9.4 percent and 14.2 percent, respectively, encountered predatory behaviors from someone online. More than three-quarters of tweens experienced or expressed violent thoughts or subject matter.
The clarity of these risks coincided with the competency of Bark’s growing team, which needed time to get to a point where they could think strategically about international markets.
“For a long time, the global market was immature to the prevalence of the issues that children were facing,” Ms. Jordan said.
No longer — and now Bark has partners in Australia, Canada and the U.S. territory of Guam.
A few factors will determine where the company devotes resources to global growth: language, culture, market opportunity and the risk profile — for the kids, not the company. As a “mission-focused” for-profit company, Bark is looking at how its platform can lead to real-world improvements in mental health for kids.
One strategy Bark is looking into internationally is partnering with Internet service providers, mobile network operators and cloud platforms to offer protection at a level above the personal device.
Bark brings partners a unique data set, along with algorithms trained on AI and machine learning, with a healthy component of human review.
“When you can get a heads-up and intervene earlier, that’s so incredibly impactful,” Ms. Jordan said. “Every day we are learning more and more about how adults speak with children and groom them. Little nuances like that are gut-wrenching but also helpful to prevent future instances of harm.”
Some social media companies cooperate with law enforcement and open their APIs, but they can’t be expected to police themselves.
Legal frameworks, including privacy regulations, will figure into Bark’s decision-making on where to focus resources.
“There are linguistic and legal challenges that vary from country to country and region to region. While English-speaking countries are easier to navigate into, there are a bunch of variables that just have to be taken on a case-by-case basis. It’s not copy and paste,” Ms. Jordan said. “If you have not ventured into global expansion, it is no easy feat.”
Bark will consider opening offices abroad, but currently has no concrete plans to directly employ people outside the U.S.
Company leaders will pack patience and humility as they seek partnerships around the world.
“We have to be open to admitting that we don’t know what we don’t know and commit to proactively seek as much wisdom and knowledge as we can in a specific region. It’s not a quick Google search about the cultural nuances of a particular country,” Ms. Jordan said.
She added that Bark will pursue domestic growth even as it expands globally.
“The U.S. market is still ripe with opportunity — we haven’t even begun to saturate it.”
No matter where in the world it ends up, she says, Atlanta will remain Bark’s home base.
“We plan to stay here as long as we can and have no reason to foresee moving or going anywhere as we grow. Atlanta is a wonderful place to grow a global consumer brand.”