The social network site Ask.fm, which launched in 2012, has provided a sort of safe haven for bullies among teenagers by allowing them to remain anonymous, the Baltimore Sun reports in this morning’s print edition.
The Ask.fm site promised to clamp down on bullying after a string of suicides in Britain were linked to the website, Reuters reported, here via the Chicago Tribune. In one case, Hannah Smith, 14, committed suicide after suffering months of bullying on the website, which allows users to post comments and questions to each other, anonymously if they want.
In response to the complaints, which have come mainly from child advocacy groups, the Latvia-based website announced plans to allow users to reject questions posed by anonymous users. But will teens and tweens find a way around this restriction? And has the sudden surge of users—the number of unique US visitors to Ask.fm jumped to 6.3 million in July, up from 3.7 million in June—made it difficult for the company founded by two Russian brothers to get a handle on bullying?
And even though any bullying is bad, as stated unanimously by Maryland’s House of Delegates earlier this year, especially online for the whole world to see, we have to wonder how much of an effect this really has. A few suicides have been reported among millions of users, which is a small number. But let me tell you, it’s not hard at all to find some forms of sexual harassment and other potential bullying on the first page you go to on the site.
[See Correction below] For example, the owner of one account, who says she’s from England, posts a picture and asks if she’s pretty. She received 812 answers and has received 1,661 likes. The site doesn’t post ages reported by users on sign-up, but one person asked her her age. She said she was 15. To another questioner, she responded that she was in the 11th year, which is about right.
What concerns me is the proportion of questions asked of this user that are sexually suggestive. Let me just say that they are beyond our ability to print them here. The user politely answers “no” to every suggestion, but the power of suggestion is an interesting thing to study. When asked, “it must be weird for you with someone of the messed up things people can say,” she said, “aha it is quite weird :L but i just go with it. … i forget all about it once i log off haha.”
But does she “forget all about it once” she logs off? That’s about as hard to believe as the blatant sexual harassment people are bombarding this girl with.
American teens by the millions are logging into Ask.fm, mainly because the overhead is just so much less than Facebook, I would imagine, and the anonymity policies are probably more convenient to teens who want to bully other teens. But when adults bullying English schoolkids are so easy to find on the site—I signed up for an account and within minutes found this account with all the questions, within minutes—it makes me think this is a potentially dangerous site for kids.
Of course, in American schools, many kids are taught how to behave online, but it doesn’t stop the bullying. And, I suppose, many kids approach their online lives with the care-free attitude of the Ask.fm user mentioned above, which seems healthy enough. But that doesn’t stop the bullying either, and I’m not so sure every teen or tween has that much control over their own emotions.