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Is Ask.fm the Internet’s Neverland, or just a haven for adolescent bullies?

As stories about cyber-bullying and its effects continue to make headlines, so do warnings about tuning into teens’ Facebooks and Twitters and Tumblrs. We are supposed to be ever-vigilant, spotting, reporting, and punishing the trolls. But those are well-known sites, with millions of users of all ages. What happens when the harassment is happening on a little-known social site whose main demographic is teenagers – and its format is Q&A, basically a welcome sign for bullying?

These are just some of the questions being asked following the death of Hannah Smith, a 14 year old Briton who is believed to have killed herself after receiving abusive messages on Ask.fm, a social network for asking and answering questions. The death of someone so young has incited outrage, not only at the harasser but at Ask.fm for perceived safety failures. Prime Minister David Cameron called for a boycott of the site until it found a way to prevent further bullying, and many major advertisers, including McDonald’s and Vodafone, pulled their ads, causing substantial revenue loss for Ask.fm. 

But does Ask.fm deserve it?

A closer look at Ask.fm 

Ask.fm is a newer site with a young user base, and it’s not as well known as the more established social platforms like Facebook and Twitter – which is precisely its appeal. Teenage users like the fact that it’s not populated by parents and teachers who are interacting and oftentimes monitoring them . While Twitter was initially the place to get away from adults on Facebook, now Ask.fm is gaining prominence.

You can get a hint at how young its users are by looking at the “popular” accounts – many are fan accounts related to Selena Gomez, Justin Bieber, One Direction, and Miley Cyrus. The reason why teens are flocking to Ask.fm is the same reason they took up Snapchat: Adults don’t know how to use it and aren’t logging on. Every parent are this point has been told how to police their child’s Facebook, and even Twitter – and increasingly, “smaller” outlets like Instagram, Snapchat, and Tumblr. But Ask.fm retains a level of adolescent secrecy.

While Ask.fm is smaller than Facebook, it has 60 million users around the world – not too shabby for a Latvian start-up nobody knew about a few years ago. 

ask fm cyberbully

When you log onto the site, you see questions people have posed to you, and you can answer them. You can follow people you’re interested in, similarly to Twitter, except followers are kept anonymous so you won’t know who keeps tabs on your account.

The focus on anonymity is obviously problematic: In addition to not being able to see who follows you, questions can be posed anonymously, which ups the chances that people are going to troll and abuse each other, since they don’t have to take responsibility for their actions.

The website shares its DNA with Formspring, a U.S. site that employed a Q&A format and came under fire in 2010 for contributing to cyber-bullying. Formspring ended up closing down and rebranding, which may have opened the door for Ask.fm’s surging popularity. 

Ask.fm recently received some spotlight when kidnapping victim Hannah Anderson used it to answer questions about her ordeal, and she told Today that using social media helped her grieve. Of course, while Ask.fm may have offered Anderson some solace, it also forced her to be targeted with questions like this:

ask fm hannah

These are fairly graphic, incredibly personal questions for a girl who’s just lost her mother and brother and is recovering from her ordeal. Her account is now disabled

Playing the platform blame game

Responding to the recent criticism, Ask.fm is bulking up its safety policies. Founders Ilja and Mark Terebin posted an open letter detailing these changes, which include making the “Report” button easier to see, and creating a dedicated section for “bullying and harassment.” The site plans to hire a larger staff to moderate comments with 24 hours, and it will make the opt-out button for anonymous answers more visible. They also plan to incentivize registering on the website, which will make it harder to bully anonymously. 

Smith’s suicide is a tragedy that needs to be addressed, and all of the changes Ask.fm is making will enhance the website’s security and make it a better place. And we should absolutely examine the tools we use to communicate with each other and look for ways to make them better. 

There are concerns that Ask.fm’s Q&A format – coupled with its young user base – is begging for bullying. Of course this setup is not much different than a number of other websites that facilitate questions and answers. On Reddit, there are several forums devoted to letting users ask strangers their opinions on appearances. On Tumblr, users can enable comments, including anonymous comments. Any website set up to let users answer questions can turn into a potent cyber-bullying tool. Now, Ask.fm did have a problematic setup, because the default settings allowed anonymous questions, and anonymity is a bully’s friend. 

But the vitriol aimed at Ask.fm is misplaced, and the site will likely never be a totally safe haven for its teenage user base, at least as long as teenagers are allowed to type messages to each other on it. And that’s not the fault of the website – it’s the fault of the users. Although Cameron called Ask.fm a “vile website” and urged people to boycott it, there’s nothing inherently vile about it. Yes, it needs better privacy protections. But even the sites with the best protections cannot stop users from finding ways to be mean to each other. 

Any time you set up a social network, you runthe risk that users aren’t going to play nice on it. There’s not a single social network – Facebook, Twitter, Instagram – that hasn’t dealt with serious cyber-bullying issues. It’s not that the rapid-fire nature of online communication coupled with the fact that you don’t have to directly confront someone to tell them something devastating means it’s easy to be vicious. 

Changing settings on Ask.fm is a flimsy Band-Aid solution to a much more pernicious problem than faulty privacy controls. The root issue, and the problem that needs to be addressed, is what users of these websites are writing. Instead of calling for a boycott, Cameron would be far more helpful calling for educational programs aimed at improving digital citizenship. Even social networks like Facebook that attempt to peg down user identity still get people setting up fake accounts to barrage other users – in many cases, the bullying happens across a variety of social networks, some that do not allow anonymity. 

The recent “Slane Girl” incident highlights that the problem is the masses, not the networks. A teenage girl who was photographed in sexually explicit situations at an Eminem concert in Slane, Ireland, underlines how privacy settings matter far less than the people using social networks. People shared these photos (which are considered child pornography) and slut-shamed the teenager ruthlessly on various social networks, including Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram. And although sites are now trying to block the images, they’ve already made the public rounds. And these are the social networks with the most robust safety measures in place. 

Finding a fix for Ask.fm

So what can be done? Jennifer Hanley, the Legal and Social Policy director at the Family Online Safety Institute, believes parents and educators should take a proactive approach. “At FOSI, we talk about building a culture of responsibility online. It’s really important for parents, teachers, teens and even the technology industry to engage in meaningful conversations about online safety issues, including cyberbullying. Parents need to talk to their kids about bullying – both online and offline. They should engage in conversations about what their kids and teens are doing online, who they are talking to, and the types of behavior they see,” she says.

“Parents should encourage their kids to come to them when they see pictures or mean content that hurts them and parents should also teach their children to take a screen capture of the incident and report the problem to the website. It’s also important for parents to teach their kids that it is ok to unfriend someone who is unkind to them, block users they don’t want contacting them anymore, and even to talk to their kids about what they consider responsible online behavior so it’s clear that they both don’t want their kids bullying and also can be someone to turn to if their kids encounter it. Parents need to talk to their kids about the importance of being an upstander and not a bystander so that if they encounter cyberbullying they know not to pile on.” 

“It’s really important to teach children and teens positive online behavior. At FOSI, we use our project, A Platform for Good, to highlight kids and teens that are doing really great things online and we’ve featured many who stand up to bullying. We want to show that the ones doing good things are the norm, even if there are some bad actors out there.” 

Hanley’s not the only cyber-bullying expert who believes education is what is paramount, not vilifying websites. Anne Collier, the co-director of ConnectSafely.org, believes the focus on boycotting Ask.fm is mistaken. She describes the process of hunting down individual websites as an endless, fruitless “whack-a-mole” process.

“People blame the Q&A format and the anonymity for a lot, but I don’t think that inherently causes cyber-bulling,” Collier says. Nor does Collier believe boycotts of specific sites like Ask.fm will stop cyber-bullying. “To call for a boycott, to appeal to public fears and concerns by calling for something that to the public would have the quickest outcome is politically feasible. The thing that’s really sad is there’s so much ignorance about social media, how different it is from the media environments adults grew up in. We don’t have the answer. The answers that worked in the past, like laws and regulation, don’t apply anymore. The underlying issue isn’t the website architecture or its customer service team or its policies or even economics – the underlying issue is human behavior.” 

And Collier notes that she has heard only good things about Ask.fm’s responses to problems. “[After publishing the aforementioned ‘whack-a-mole’ piece], I heard back from a youth help line in the U.K. about how responsible Ask.fm has been when there have been problems with young people and the help line has contacted Ask.fm,” she explains. “The European Commission set up a network of helplines in all E.U. countries for kids with problems involving the Internet, as well as other emotional, psychological issues.”

Collier explains what Laura Higgins, the manager of the U.K.’s safer internet helpline, told her about Ask.fm. “[Laura] contacted me and said ‘I’ve been liaising with child protection practitioners to raise awareness of this issue, unfortunately the media have been spreading serious mistruths about the site, which has been seriously unhelpful. You can report abuses on the site and you can turn off the anonymous element. I have a direct contact with Mark Terebin and his team and despite dozens of calls from concerned parents I have not seen one example of the moderators not responding appropriately. They also work proactively with the cybercrime department in Latvia, who have no concerns over their handling of abuse. I am in not in any way endorsing the site, it is a total breeding ground for hate speak, bullying, and highly sexualized content, but I think it’s really important we’re spreading positive safety messages instead of the negative media version.” 

Every suicide related to cyber-bullying is a tragedy, and outrage is a good response. And reacting with concern and anger toward some of the disgusting things people write on Ask.fm is beyond fair. 

But rallying against specific websites will not quell bullies. Until an effective anti-bullying education initiative develops or legislative changes provide a compelling deterrent, cyber-bullying is going to continue unabated. Instead of pointing fingers at websites, politicians should be working to influence policy that funds digital ethics education – because that’s the only way to instill real change.  

[Photo credit: Flickr, Wen Tong Neo] 

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