I stumbled upon ask.fm last year when my daughter posted a link to it on her Instagram account.
The social networking site allows people to stay hidden as they follow each other and post comments anonymously.
Custom-made for cruel 12-year-olds and creepy old guys, right?
“Ask me anything. I’ll answer it,” she wrote.
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I felt a little queasy, but I let it go for awhile. I figured I could check the site randomly and it might help me stay on top of what was happening in her life in that no-parent zone that starts to widen in middle school.
But I pulled the plug last May, when I started seeing mean and sexual comments on her ask.fm page and some of her friends’ pages. Other moms I know have done the same.
This month, 12-year-old Rebecca Sedwick of Florida became the ninth teen to end her life in the past year after being terrorized by a relentless barrage of hateful comments on ask.fm, where investigators have found messages calling her ugly and urging her to die.
Sure, there are other apps, other problems, other methods of torture. But what all of these kids had in common was that they shared their ask.fm account with relentless, anonymous abusers.
Ask.fm, started in 2010 by two Latvian brothers, now claims about 65 million users – more than half of them children under the age of 18. One of the site’s most famous users was Hannah Anderson, the Southern California teen who was kidnapped this year by a family friend. Hannah went on ask.fm to discuss her ordeal less that a week after she was rescued by FBI agents. She deleted her account when anonymous posters started asking questions about whether she had sex with her kidnapper and questioning her ordeal.
Ask.fm has responded to criticism by adding an abuse reporting button and employing monitors for cyberbullying and sexually explicity comment. (I guess the monitor was on a bathroom break when kids in Miami were writing about sluts, blow jobs and dirty c*nts on the pages I saw.) Operators also have added a private settings feature that allows users to opt out of receiving anonymous questions.
That’s a weak response that cares more about growing a user base, not saving young lives.
Nearly 1 in 6 high school students has seriously considered suicide, and 1 in 12 has attempted it, according to the latest survey on youth risk behavior published by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Overall, the suicide rate among teens has climbed in the past few years, from 6.3 percent in 2009 to 7.8 percent in 2011.
How do we stop it from climbing higher in the age of Internet over-sharing?
We parents need to be vigilant about checking our kids’ cell phones. We need to initiate more dinner-time conversations about online behavior and what’s not acceptable. And we need to talk to other parents about what’s going on.
Nobody is expected to stay on top of all this technology alone.
We should expect certain standards from sites that knowingly court our children as users.
Earlier this year, the Miami Herald joined a growing list of newspapers that have stopped allowing readers to post anonymous comments below online stories. While the newspaper felt driven to engage more people on its website and grow its readership, the dialogue by anonymous commentators had turned so poisonous and vile that it had become unacceptable. Outside monitors couldn’t keep up.
It’s easy to be ugly when nobody knows who you are. It’s time for kid-friendly apps and sites to do away with their hiding places and, like newspapers, make users attach an identity to their comments.