A Latvian-based website called "Ask.fm" is allowing anonymous questions to be posed to the more than 30 million users worldwide -- the majority of which are pre-teens and teenagers. Some questions are innocent, but most contain disturbing, intrusive and abusive language about mature content.
The question-and-answer website allows anyone to see names, pictures and profile information, which often includes personal details, of children as young as age ten. Each user has a profile where they respond to questions that have been posted to them, and can also go onto other profiles to ask questions.
Alerted to this site by Dale Curd, counsellor, co-founder of Change Bullying and host of the OWN TV show Life Story Project, I created a user name and dove in. My first reaction was surprise. I held my breath scrolling through profile after profile of boys and girls being asked incredibly personal information by strangers. I'd say that MORE THAN HALF of the posts I read had words I cannot put in this article. Here are some of the more tame questions:
"Why are you such a loser?"
"Would you do friends with benefits?"
"Why do you stink?"
"Name one person you hate from your school."
I found many questions about sexual preferences, sexual advice, committing indecent acts, and lots of personally identifying questions.
This is a breeding ground for exploitation and abuse. As the site is registered in Latvia, it does not need to adhere to the controls put in place by sites like Twitter or Facebook. They do not delete users, remove posts which contain abusive language or have any form of reporting mechanism.
My heart pounded looking through the site -- I'm just not used to seeing so much profanity and disgusting references. I needed to debrief after just being on it for one afternoon. Curd commented that the teens likely didn't share my emotional overload as they don't have the context for the serious content being discussed and become emotionally detached from the writing.
"They're talking about sex like they're talking about hamburgers," Curd says.
The Ask.fm website was drawn to Curd's attention while doing a Change Bullying presentation in an elementary school just outside of Toronto. The children opened up to him about a group of girls who were using Ask.fm to coerce and target another girl. They egged her on, even suggesting that she commit suicide. This needs to be taken very seriously by parents everywhere as sixteen-year-old Florida resident Jessica Laney did take her own life in December, with her friends claiming that Ask.fm strongly influenced her actions.
What Curd found most surprising while listening to the elementary students was that the young girls were answering questions from others that were very sexually explicit. These young girls were not shutting the questions down, but actually responding to them as if nothing was off limits.
Deeply saddened, I also saw teens using this site as a forum to share personal feelings only to have that vulnerability attacked with shame. Some exposed their most private moments only to have replies like "you are a slut" or "you're just fat."
For the most part the comments are anonymous which enables the drawing out of repressed behaviour in the young users. Curd stresses this perception of anonymity is allowing these kids to drop their guard and explore social taboos at a superficial level. The users are often looking for the thrill of pushing the limits.
Sites like Ask.fm allow users to intimidate, bully, lower their inhibitions, and say things they wouldn't in person.
What can parents do?
Unfortunately we are not going to be able to completely police our child's online activity. The old recommendation was to allow pre-teens and teens on a site with the condition the parent was included as a user or friend. However, according to tech writer Clive Thompson, a migration away from Facebook is happening in the teen population because of this lack of privacy.
Teens are using other sites like Tumblr and Instagram, which parents do not use as frequently. They are also flocking toward Ask.fm, Snapchat and mobile apps to correspond. If a child has an iPod or kindle, they can easily communicate with others away from their parent's eyes.
When teens feel they cannot be vulnerable with their parents, they are more likely to: turn to these secretive places to find an ear to hear them, share beyond safe boundaries, and get hurt.
In order to protect our children, there needs to be a combination of safeguards in place to keep harmful sites away and instructions on how to be online appropriately; but the greater protector is an open, positive relationship between a teen and their parent or caregiver.
Curd says, "The tactic to keeping kids safe is all about transparency."
He encourages parents to create dialogue and private moments where pre-teens/ teens are invited to be transparent and share their experiences. This needs to be met with age-appropriate sharing on the parent's part. When a child knows they can express their thoughts or feelings to a parent who will not freak-out on them, they are more likely to open up when things get hard.
Along with openness, coach children to be empathetic while online. As Curd says, "Get the child to a place of understanding where they get that asking or responding to harsh questions on sites like this makes a person feel less than themselves."
Dale Curd is available to bring his anti-bullying Change Bullying program to your school. www.changebullying.com
If you would like to improve the relationship with your teen, I suggest an article on this topic that I wrote for The Momiverse. Please <click here> to read that article. More resources on improving parent-teen relationship are available through my twitter, facebook, and goodreads accounts. Links to all those can be found through my website www.andreanair.com
I recommend seeking the advice of a trusted psychotherapist or counsellor if the relationship with your teenager is strained. Once a teen has disengaged from their parents, it often takes support to get them back.
You, your partner, and other primary child-givers are going to be teaching your children how to talk. Here are some tips to promote clearer communication and to help you foster increased self-esteem, confidence and understanding through this process.
Learn sign-language and start by 6 months of age. Consistently use these 7 main signs with babies: eat, milk, water, sleep, more, help, and all-done. Each time you say any of these words, make the sign at the same time. Once these basic signs are mastered by your baby, you can add in the signs for the food your child likes. Your babies will likely modify the sign—that’s okay! The point is that they make a motion because they need something and you understand how to fulfill that need.
Pronounce words properly. Speak words the way they sound regularly and use the proper emPHAsis on the right sylLAble. If you talk like a baby to your baby, they will not learn the proper mouth shapes, sounds, and intonation of words. Baby talk is very tempting but it is important to resist! You can get those cute smiles and coos to come out if you simply stare deeply into their eyes and smile as you are talking to them. Also, repeat back much of what they say and do it properly: They say, “wa-wa,” you smile, nod, and say, “water.”
Do not say the word “no” like a question or as instructions. Use this word as a command, not a question. Say it assertively. Let your child know what it is that you would like her to stop doing. Rather than yelling “NO!!!” be specific about what the no is for: add a verb behind it… “no touching, no hitting!”
Take “okay” out of your vocabulary when talking to toddlers. As mentioned above, children understand what to do when they are given clear (and caring) instructions. If you do this but then throw an “okaaayyy” with a high pitched tone at the end of the sentence, you have just communicated to them that they are in charge and can veto your request.
Do not use a child's name in a punishing tone or as a command. “Rrruuussseellllllll!!!” does not communicate to your child that he needs to back up from the hot oven. Say your child’s name to get his attention and follow that with what you want him to do: “Russell… hot… stop!” Also, it is important to use the appropriate intonation in your voice to match the situation. For example, if he hears a panicked screech from you, it should make him FREEZE whereas a stern command tells him he is doing something wrong but is not in danger.
Give specific commands. “Fingers up!” tells children how to be careful to not get their fingers caught in a drawer, whereas “careful!” does not actually give them any useful instructions.
Use one- to three-word sentences. Children learn to speak by listening to everything you are saying, by watching your body language and by seeing how you interact with others so talk normally when not talking directly to them. However, if you are speaking directly to a toddler, use one to three word sentences. For example, if you see your children struggling with a toy, look into their eyes and ask, “Mommy help?” As you are speaking, also use the sign for help. Once they start repeating your sentences, you can add another word in.
Look into their eyes when speaking directly to them. They are learning to speak by lip-reading too. Remember to get down to floor level, smile, and nod while talking to toddlers.
Read to your baby/toddler every day. Even if your child only sits for a minute, open a book and look at as many pages as she has the attention for. Have books in a place that your child can reach, and be a model by regularly reading something for yourself around her.
Do not have the TV on in the background. The TV will compete with you for his attention (and vise versa) thereby interfering with focus on what you are saying.
Use proper terms for things. This reduces confusion. For example, in a moment of panic you don’t want your five year-old hollering this across the school-ground, “He just kicked me in the wee-wee!!” Remember: other children can be very cruel and have long memories.
I post more parenting tips and resources over on my Facebook page so you are welcome to pop over there and join our supportive parenting community.
As I drag myself off the floor where my three-year-old and five-year-old are happily playing, I am trying to summon motivation to help stop feeling sorry for my tired body that was kept up last night by a feverish child. Life has to go on today—no calling in sick here!
How many of you are nodding with me?
I am making this list to help myself today because I managed in the past to get through many sleepless nights, and the following sleepy days. I can do it! (She says without conviction) My goal today is to make it through intact and not let my tiredness turn me into an asshole.
I'm not sure if I'm completely crazy or what, but I actually have never had a cup of coffee in my life. Whether you are at work or at home, use any of these caffeine-free tips that suit you to help through your sleepy day:
1) Create a safe zone for the kids and then curl up near them for a power nap. When the kids were younger, I would barricade them in a small area and fall asleep on the floor beside them. Now I can sleep through a blaring TV or LEGO dismantling! Five to ten minutes of a power nap is all you need.
2) Stop telling yourself you are tired. Positive thinking will make a big difference; put on your glass-half-full goggles. There have been many studies which demonstrate humans can do just fine on even four hours of sleep if they need to. Remind yourself of this all day.
3) Don't sit around too much, and try to get outside. I find I am more tired when I am sitting. If I take the boys outside or to play somewhere else, I often forget how tired I am. But don't push yourself too hard for multiple days in a row. A day or two here or there of pushing yourself onto your feet will be okay. If this is a repeated pattern, you run the risk of harming your health.
4) Do something that will make you laugh because "laughing releases the same tension as tears." (Dr. Laura Markham) I do feel like crying... all day... so laughing is a much better option! My choices are usually: air guitar to my favourite songs, hanging with friends, watching a funny video. Have you watched America's Funniest Videos lately? Good stuff.
5) Do some yoga and/or meditation. Inversion poses are super for waking the body and mind. If I start to feel fuzzy, I do a sun-salutation series or meditate for a couple minutes.
6) Drink water with lemon if you have it, and eat real food. Junk food is only not bad for you, it often makes you sleepy.
7) Have a shower, do your hair, and wear nice clothes. For some reason I feel better when I'm not in a pony-tail and saggy-butt grey sweats pants.
I need to put my psychotherapist hat on and say that if sleepless nights are a chronic problem, seek professional help either through a trained child sleep expert (my go-girl there is Alanna McGinn) or a trained counsellor.