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Research: Cyberbullying Prevention

News Story

Dyson Adjunct Assistant Professor Elliot Hearst and Pace student Sidorela Lleshi ’18 are using Mary Shelley’s novel Frankenstein to fight cyberbullying.

If you’re at Pace, you probably have an opinion about studying literature and writing essays. Maybe you find this kind of work stimulating, or maybe you’d rather gouge your eyes out. Either way, it might have occurred to you at one time or another to wonder, what’s the point? Why study old books by dead writers about made-up characters?

It’s a common criticism of literary study as well as art in general—that there’s no obvious real-world application. As Adjunct Assistant Professor Elliot Hearst can attest, however, once in a while literary study manages to cross over into the real world in a real way.

The inspiration was Frankenstein. Not the goofy green version of the monster in platform boots that you see on TV, but the original 1818 novel by Mary Shelley, featuring a young scientist who animates a grotesque creature stitched together from parts of corpses. For Hearst, who specializes in the Romantic movement and silent film, it started as an ordinary semester of Critical Writing, leading his students through a syllabus full of novels and stories loosely connected by the theme of temptation. When they got to Shelley’s book, however, one student, Sidorela Lleshi ’18, was riveted. Hearst explains, “She was really struck by the way the creature was treated by society because of his appearance.”

Because Lleshi is disabled, she knows something about being treated differently based on outer appearance. The kicker for her, however, was the novel’s link to technology. Frankenstein, with its protagonist’s relentless laboratory experiments, is sometimes billed as the first genuine science-fiction story, and Lleshi happens to have personal experience with the tragedy and cruelty that can result from technology. Last year, one of her family friends was killed in what escalated from an initial series of threats made on Facebook. “Neither his parents nor his friends had any idea about the threats, so they couldn’t help him stay safe,” she explains.

Spurred by Lleshi’s fascination with the novel, Hearst worked closely with her to help her develop a unique thesis that drew parallels between the novel’s themes and the increasingly digital world that Lleshi knew. “She made a connection between science causing evil outcomes and modern technology allowing people to do evil things,” says Hearst. More specifically, Lleshi was talking about the problem of cyberbullying. It wasn’t the most traditional literary analysis, but, as Hearst explains, “She was passionate, and I wanted to give her as much freedom as possible.” The resulting essay was entitled “A Patchwork and a Safety Net: The Use and Abuse of Technology in Frankenstein and Today.”

For Lleshi, however, the essay was only the beginning. Convinced that the tragedy of her friend’s death could have been prevented, she devised a way that her work with Hearst could be turned into practical action. Frankenstein is often described as a kind of “patchwork” because its narrative is a series of letters—Lleshi took this idea and re-envisioned that patchwork as something more positive: a safety net. In other words, she believed that technology, in spite of its dangers, could be turned around to be used for good.

Meet Cyberstein, Lleshi’s new brainchild to combat cyberbullying. Don’t worry—it’s not a hulking creature with bolts in its neck; it’s a mobile app that notifies parents if their child is being bullied online. It’s also cleverly designed to preserve the child’s privacy—it doesn’t give parents access to the child’s account, and it only notifies them if bullying language is recurrent. It’s still a work in progress—Lleshi is currently working with the company that is helping her develop the app—but if her vision succeeds, parents will eventually have an innovative new tool to help them stop cyberbullying before it takes a turn for the worse.

The project has been empowering and eye-opening for Lleshi. “Over the years my disability has made me shy and introverted, and working on this project has helped me come to terms with it,” she says. “Doing research in this field has made me become more socially aware, allowing me to interact with others without fear of judgment.”

As for Hearst, this is the first time one of his students has taken her literary work beyond the page, and he’s pleased. “Reading a novel from 200 years ago, it’s nice to know that a student can find a way to connect that to the present day and be inspired to try to make something on her own.”