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Phone app gives parents a glimpse into their child's mental health struggles

The Bark app runs in the background on a child's device and sends parents or caregivers a text alert if the child has discussed or searched for unsafe content.

MINNEAPOLIS — It might be easy sometimes to avoid learning about all the apps your kids are on and how they're using them--it can be overwhelming. Experts behind the Bark app want to change that, allowing caregivers to easily keep tabs on their child's internet safety.

The app, developed in 2015 by a former Twitter executive and dad of two, runs in the background on a child's device. It uses artificial intelligence to spot age-inappropriate or dangerous content, such as key phrases in conversation threads or harmful web searches. The parent then receives a text alert about the inappropriate content, and they're provided with next steps.

"The ethos behind Bark is not to spy on your kids or be a helicopter parent; it’s meant to open a dialogue," said Titania Jordan, chief marketing officer. "We strongly encourage parents, when they decide to use Bark, to talk about it with their child. Much like when your child resists a seatbelt, you know, when they’re in their car seat and they’re like, 'No!' You’re like – I get it-- but it’s to save your life."

Jordan says they've heard testimonials from parents where the app may have been life-saving. She says the app sends around 85 "severe" self-harm alerts each day.

Credit: Bark.us
Titania Jordan, chief marketing officer at Bark Technologies

"A mom wrote in anonymously and said that Bark helped save her child’s life. She got a Bark alert, and she went to go talk to her child about it, and he was contemplating taking his life," Jordan said.

Suicidal ideation is just one of the topics the app searches for. It also flags sexual content, eating disorder content, violent content, and cyber bullying.

"We default to giving you as much information as you need to know without going overboard," Jordan said. "If your child is truly experiencing suicidal ideation or some kind of self-harm behaviors, we will send you what is related to that."

Credit: Bark.us
This image shows cyberbullying behaviors that parents would be notified of when using the Bark app.

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The app costs $14/month for a subscription, or $99 annually. However, even if you don't download the app, Jordan says there are a number of easy steps parents can take on a consistent basis to check in with their child's mental health.

"Mental health is like taking care of a car," she said. "Many big problems can be taken care of with preventative maintenance. It’s so much better to be preventative rather than addressing things retroactively when they’ve already escalated."

Jordan encourages parents to talk about feelings often.

RELATED: Five tips on how to talk to your kids about mental health struggles

"Emotions are how we process and make sense of the world around us. Make sure you’re open about yours and be that safe place for your child," she said.

Jordan says one way to create a safe space is by sharing some of your own struggles and how you overcame them.

"Be a role model. Sharing with your child what you might struggle with. What did you see online that maybe you didn’t feel so good about? Were you excluded from something? How do you decompress?"

Lastly, encourage good physical health. Be active with your kids and do your best to ensure they're getting a full night's rest.

"The mind and the body are linked," Jordan said. "Good physical health can really help mental health."

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