Growing up in Dayton, Ohio, Lazer Mangel would help his dad, the local Chabad-Lubavitch rabbi, set up the family’s WiFi network so that he could still get in whenever he wanted.
Mangel, 24, says he is proof that you can’t block a kid from anything.
“My Dad put on this web blocker,” he recalls. “The ridiculous amount of things I tried to do to get around it: I hacked his computer a couple of times by figuring how to start Windows in safe mode and activate a separate administrator account so I could use his computer at 2 o’clock in the morning.”
Now, Mangel comes to work in Herzliya each day with the mission of protecting children from the palpable dangers that come along with using a smartphone. “I have to put myself into the mind of a 40-year-old parent with an 8- [or] 9-year-old kid,” he says. “I understand issues in a way that I couldn’t possibly have before.”
Mangel is the marketing and PR specialist for a company called sFBI—Small Factory, Big Ideas—which he calls a “startup’s startup.”
SFBI’s team builds and launches products. “Instead of the entire team just continuing on with that product, the second the product becomes viable, you start hiring in a CEO, you hire the staff that are needed, and then it spins off,” he says.
Right now, his attention is focused on boscoapp.com, an artificial-intelligence parenting app that predicts and prevents threats to children via their smartphones; it’s intended for parents with children ages 8 to 15.
“We use AI to identify the warning signs—whether it’s pedophilia grooming or cyberbullying or the kid just had a bad day. We can use AI to monitor the data ourselves and then notify parents [that] ‘Hey, something is up.’ We give parents the information they need to be parents.”
According to Mangel, the Internet challenges his parents faced a decade ago pale in comparison to those of today.
“The computer was in the family room,” he says. “I grew up with a landline phone. Friends came and played at my house. There were so many physical cues: Parents were able to really be there and understand what was going on with their kids. They weren’t locked in their room with a smartphone. And smartphones dramatically changed that.”
The amount of data, he says, is impossible for parents to keep up with. “You can’t monitor it, you can’t block it all. Kids are going to find a way around any possible block. You’re going to look through a list of every website they’ve ever visited? It will never end.”
He cites data that in the United States, 42 percent of children between 9 and 12 have a smartphone with a plan. Ninety-two percent of children in the United States go online at least once a day, 24 percent say they are constantly online, and 87 percent of children have witnessed cyberbullying.
Mangel also points to statistics from NoBullying.com’s 2015 bullying report, “The Complicated Web of Teen Lives,” including the fact that:
- More than seven out of 10 children felt that bullying negatively impacted their social lives;
- 83 percent of victims felt that the bullying hurt their self-esteem;
- 30 percent of victims have turned to self-harming behaviors, which has increased by 6 percent from 2013;
- 30 percent of children who have been bullied have suicidal thoughts, a 5 percent rise from 2013 statistics;
- 10 percent of children have attempted to take their own lives due to bullying;
- 7 percent of victims have bullied others as a result of being bullied.
“From all the research I’ve read, every screen activity is linked to more unhappiness, and every non-screen activity is linked to more happiness,” says Mangel. “And kids act out the more parents take their phone out during family time. There’s just this horrible cycle of technology’s effect. At the same time, the genie has left the bottle. You can’t put it back in. So now it’s about, how do we mitigate this risk? How do we make sure that our children are still safe?”
Philosophically, Mangel says boscoapp.com balances children’s needs for privacy and parents’ need to keep their children safe.
“We believe in giving privacy and freedom, understanding that blocking content puts children at a social disadvantage, and creates an adversarial relationship between parents and the child,” explains Mangel. “If you’re using the spying app, it just creates distrust. A relationship that’s not based off of trust and communication, the kid now has an incentive to try and hide stuff.
“Even so, we acknowledge the risks of kids being online unsupervised. It’s the reason that cyberbullying is spiking. It’s the reason why kids are on these apps for anonymous messaging or Whisper or Secret, where you can have anyone say, ‘Hey, what’s your name, send me a picture.’ A 15-year-old girl can very easily take a nudie selfie of herself, send it to her boyfriend and not comprehend the fact that it might get sent out to everyone in the school. And once it does happen, if it happens, that’s it. It’s over. That’s out there for the rest of her life.”
‘We raise red flags’
Parents install bocsoapp.com on their phones and on their children’s phones. Mangel says the app producers work with psychologists to balance privacy and security.
“We analyze text messages, right now, primarily from WhatsApp, but we’re adding more services in the near future,” he says. “We’re not going to show parents every single message. We show you the total number of messages, but as long as there are no offensive messages, we’re not going to show anything.”
The app is available in English, Hebrew, Arabic, French, Spanish, Turkish and Chinese.
“Once we know there’s an offensive message, the parent can go in and see the contents of the conversation, just that snippet. We’re using our AI to try to understand what are the key words and key phrases, and then understand which snippets of a conversation are the relevant ones. It’s the same thing with photos.”
Mangel says the service blurs out the photos so parents can understand what’s going on. “But we’re not going to show a parent their 15-year-old daughter’s nudes,” he says. “It’s inappropriate, and it’s an invasion of privacy.”
The app also features a location tracker and has introduced mood analysis on phone calls.
“We build up a voice print for each child,” says Mangel. “Instead of analyzing the words that they’re saying on a phone call, we’re analyzing the tone of voice they use to say it. Every kid is going to have a different baseline, whether it’s good or bad or neutral. Most of it is machine learning, so we’re constantly training an algorithm to understand. The more data it’s fed, the better its predictions are.”
The app doesn’t provide the parents with the full conversation, but let’s them know that there were some “bad” phone calls.
“It’s not to say, ‘This thing happened, go punish them,’ ” notes Mangel. “It’s to say, ‘Something’s going on, talk to your kid.’ ”
Over time, the accuracy for bad conversations and offensive photos becomes higher and more refined.
“We don’t claim that we’re going to catch everything. We don’t claim that we might not make mistakes,” says Mangel. “But a couple of weeks ago, a parent told us that they got a ‘sounded bad’ mood report from their child’s phone calls. They came back and asked their kid, ‘How was school today? Is everything OK?’ And it turns out there was a fight in school. There was something that happened to him. We raise red flags.”
He emphasizes that the app is not a substitute for parenting. “Every parent has the right—it’s really their job—to decide how they want to parent. It’s not a job for any third party, any company to go and say, ‘This is what you’re supposed to do in this type of situation.’ ”
‘Hope doesn’t cut it’
SFBI, which itself is only two years old, launched the beta version of boscoapp.com a year ago. It added the text analysis feature six weeks ago, and is now releasing its algorithmic geolocation service.
“We automatically recognize if a child is at home, is at school,” says Mangel. “We send parents notifications when they leave the house, when they arrive at school, and when they leave school and arrive home. We’re going to start route analysis, so if a kid takes 10 minutes to get home every single day from school and suddenly it takes him 45 minutes, we’ll be able to catch that and notify a parent. Something might be wrong.”
Boscoapp.com is also ramping up mood analysis through app usage; if a child plays on his phone for an hour a day, and suddenly, it leaps to four, parents will receive a message, too.
The long-term goal, which Mangel states is about a year-and-a-half away, is a red-alert system that will aggregate all of the independent analysis modules to indicate if multiple scenarios are going on at the same time.
“We have two researchers that work with us from the United Kingdom National Center for Cyberstalking Research,” he says. “They’re studying with parent-child pairs the effectiveness of Bosco to prevent cyberbullying and its accuracy in reporting.”
The app, which is still offered for free during its beta testing, has 50,000 subscribers in Israel, the United States, the United Kingdom and Indonesia. Mangel says Indonesia was a surprise.
“Around a third of our users are from Indonesia. We never did any marketing there,” he says. “It’s all organic. We’ve been focusing primarily on Asia, and we’re transitioning towards the United States now. Israel is our largest base.”
The app has received funding from the Singapore-Israel Industrial R&D Foundation.
“We have AI researchers from Panasonic helping build our algorithms,” notes Mangel. “We need to collect as much data as possible and improve our systems, and only then do we feel comfortable charging.”
In a few months, Mangel says, the model will be set at $2 per child, per month.
A significant obstacle to children’s cyber safety, he adds, is that parents assign themselves to hope.
“Parents understand the risks logically,” he says. “Emotionally, they’re unprepared. Parents say, ‘My kid’s a good kid. I hope they understand what’s right and wrong.’ The problem is, kids don’t. They don’t have the ability to make long-term decisions. A sweet, innocent kid can be harassed at school or cyberbullied every day, but never bring it up to their parents.
“An innocent 13-year-old girl can have some guy giving her some attention that has bad intentions. Hope doesn’t cut it. You have to be there for your child when you’re actually needed.”
Israel gave him purpose
Mangel, who made aliyah at age 19, learned social-media marketing through his work for Mayanot, a Birthright Israel trip operator, and through his 22 months coordinating English-language social media for the Israel Defense Forces Spokesperson’s Unit as part of a team that managed the IDF’s Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, blog and YouTube. With the IDF, he was also responsible for increasing content viewership.
He made aliyah from within Israel through Nefesh B’Nefesh’s “guided aliyah” program.
“I went to their office here, and it was the easiest process in the world,” says Mangel, who lives in Tel Aviv’s Kerem Hateimanim neighborhood. “I was a citizen within 45 minutes.”
As far as the startup scene goes, he says the opportunities in Israel are limitless.
“It’s a playground with opportunity. In the IDF, I was given responsibility for a website that had 20,000 to 30,000 visitors a month. On social media, we had 3.5 million followers, and we were expected to make decisions in crisis and come up with crisis communications to understand if something’s happening, what’s smart for us to say, how do we approach this? You can go to college for four years and learn the theories, but in Israel, you get to do it.”
He adds that growing up in the Chabad movement—with his father as a member of Dayton’s Jewish clergy and a community leader—was the greatest gift he could have received.
“I didn’t understand that until a couple of years ago,” he says. “But it gave me life skills that are invaluable: the ability to understand politics and dynamics, and to understand leadership. I grew up with this mentality of public service, of not living life simply for yourself.”
He says there was a period of time when he was angry and rejected his upbringing.
“But over time, I’ve come to love it—the tradition and the stories and the community of Judaism. That’s something that I consider integral to my attitude and my identity. I don’t know if I believe in a Creator, per se, but you look at the world around you and there’s this abstract sense of logic, and it makes too much sense. So I look at the world, and the world is God. I don’t pray. Do I follow all the rituals? Eh, not really. But I refuse to look at this world and say it’s by chance, and that we’re not supposed to do something incredible with it.”
Mangel says coming to Israel gave him purpose: “I’m given the chance to wake up every morning here and keep children safe. I don’t know if there’s anything better out there.”
Marshall Weiss is editor and publisher of the Dayton Jewish Observer.
Travel for this story was underwritten by Nefesh B’Nefesh.