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Sponsor: National Science Foundation

Social media platforms and online gaming sites serve as ubiquitous platforms that provide peer interaction and social development for adolescents along with potential threats to health and safety. Addressing cyberbullying and cybersecurity issues in these spaces is essential for healthy social development. Cyberbullying has been connected to negative mental health outcomes for adolescents including anxiety, depression, poor academic performance, and increased risk of suicide. While cyberbullying is of concern for all adolescents, adolescents with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) are especially vulnerable and are at a higher risk of becoming victims of bullying and theft of personal data. Our research addresses these issues through a personalized virtual companion whose interactions with the adolescent are guided by Artificial Intelligence (AI), and whose presence can help the adolescent control his or her emotional reactions to bullying by providing advice on safe behaviors concerning cybersecurity. The goal is to help these adolescents with ASD develop protective and coping strategies when encountering cyberbullying or attempts occur to access their private information.

The work we plan to do aligns with advancing this population’s future ability to work in STEM related fields. Adolescents and adults with ASD often have many of the skills for jobs in high tech and especially in cybersecurity industries. Yet, having social emotional skills and protective strategies are critical for maneuvering both school and future employment, which is the dual focus of this project.

In summary, our work seeks to create and employ personalized virtual companions that guide adolescents with ASD in ways to improve their self-protection strategies and increase their cybertechnology knowledge, with the goal being to help prepare them to become productive and satisfied members of a modern, inclusive, technology-savvy workforce.

Principal Investigator

Charlie Hughes, Ph.D.
Pegasus Professor of Computer Science


Lisa A. Dieker, Ph.D.
Pegasus Professor of Exceptional Student Education