Social cruelty on Ask.fm & the whack-a-mole tendency

Remember Formspring.me? Three years ago some terrible trolling that reportedly involved teens in New Jersey made the site, which announced it was shutting down* last month, a national news story in the US. Teens’ viral adoption of Formspring and its format (ask a question, get an anonymous answer) reportedly took the site by surprise. Disturbing news coverage and letters sent home by school principals did so even more, and Formspring doubled down on safety measures. There’s no way to know for sure if the site shut down because everybody moved on, but its numbers did dwindle and it did shut down. A lot of people forget that that’s how social media works. People can simply move on (more on this in a minute).

Now, Ask.fm, a site based in Latvia, is getting similar media attention in the UK (though a search for “ask.fm” in Google News turns up plenty of negative reactions to Ask.fm in news outlets throughout the US). “Schools across the country are sending out letters advising pupils not to use Ask.fm, which has more than 30 million users around the world and has been linked to suicides and serious bullying,” the London Daily Mail reported recently. Ask.fm’s founder Mark Terebin did not help his site’s image when he said on Irish television last fall that “we only have this situation in Ireland and the UK most of all. It seems that children are more cruel in these countries.” [It was noteworthy to see the Daily Mail say something positive about Twitter and Facebook: "Unlike other services such as Facebook and Twitter, there is no way to report offensive comments, increase privacy settings or find out who is behind anonymous bullying." But it should be noted that US federal privacy law prohibits online service providers from disclosing a user's identity to another user without a court order – at least in the US.]

Whack-a-mole not the solution

So there’s always going to be a site that everybody’s going to love to hate, and we’re not helping children develop the self-respect, empathy and resilience that will truly protect them by getting caught up in an endless frustrating game of whack-a-mole. It also doesn’t help our credibility with our kids and – even when sites show little or no corporate responsibility – the sites aren’t the root problem.

Remember the “Am I Pretty?” videos on YouTube that were in the news last fall? They’re not in the headlines anymore, but we know they still get posted. [Two years before that story, Formspring contacted social media researcher danah boyd about a subtle kind of self-harm the staff had detected, and the site and the researcher started an important discussion about teens' cries for help through staging anonymous bullying behavior against themselves.]

New site, same issues

And now we see this story in, for example, The Independent in Dublin: “Last fall, a girl told us she had put a question about herself on the ask.fm site and was waiting for the anonymous answers. She said while they might be mean, at least she would know what people think about her.” This is exactly what teens were doing in Formspring (I wrote two posts about it three years ago in “Formspring: What’s really going on” and “Formspring: What’s going on around it”).

[Here's the part about how social media works (mentioned in the first paragraph): If sites put so many safety measures in place that users feel their expression's being restricted, the users can simply move on, possibly to a site, app or service in some country with no protective laws in place (or just a less reputable one). There's essentially an infinite number of "places" where users can go. It's too easy for young people to find workarounds, which is why it's better to keep communications lines open than to ban things and send kids "underground."]

It’s good to draw attention to irresponsible or anti-social media companies and sites – public opinion is powerful, or at least over time gathers power, in a user-driven media environment (see this and this). But it’s even better to think out loud with children in our care about compassion and respect for self and others, beauty and body image, how to be a friend and choose our friends. Instead of banning devices or sites, wouldn’t it yield more to talk about what pro- and anti-social behavior looks and feels like on them? In a way, we can thank the advent of social media for making it more crucial than ever to have these conversations with our children and students. Those heart-to-hearts plus the life lessons that come from working through things with peers build resilience, the internal protection that will always be with them, online and offline. But just as was true long before there was social media, letting them know we have their backs and they’re loved and respected is huge.

*Formspring announced it would be closing March 31, but on that day added an announcement to its site that “a last-minute deal in the works … will help keep Formspring up. More details to follow in the coming week.” The details haven’t been posted.

Related links

  • Ask.fm’s very one-sided Terms of Use (note whose rights are foremost – not users’)
  • But nothing’s black & white (or either all bad or all good) in life and social media. To illustrate, there are perfectly legitimate and, arguably, silly things going on in the site, such as the Ask.fm page of Texas nonprofit organization Children at Risk, and then the page featuring Rutgers University students’ crushes, as described in the 144-year-old student newspaper The Targum: “People submit confessions about their crush anonymously to an ask.fm account and @RU_crushes [in Twitter] publishes them for all to see.” The reporter goes on to write, “To be fair, the ask.fm page chides users for being too vulgar, warning that, ‘if you think the ones posted now are bad, you’d be surprised.’ I’m not surprised. People are weird. People are sexual. People want to share. People think weird and sexual things and then they share them. I am perplexed, though. Can’t we share on a higher level?”
  • I really like the closing line of the commentary in The Independent I mentioned above: “iTrust is an application parents need to develop.” I was thinking similar thoughts when I wrote “Does tracking our kids’ every move make them safer?” and “The trust factor in parenting online kids.”
  • More about the self-respect imperative: “Teens, social media & trolls: Toxic mix,” but keeping in mind the research which shows that, in digital media as well as in life, learning and resilience don’t happen without exposure to risk (not harm but risk – there’s a difference).

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