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.