What's App: Ask.fm

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Question-and-answer site Ask.fm has so far stayed under the radar of most adults, despite its estimated 65 million users worldwide. But given the heavy associations the site has with cyberbullying, and the fact that half of its users are under the age of 18, perhaps parents and teachers should be taking a closer look.

Ask.fm follows a simple question-and-answer format, similiar to a game of Truth or Dare. Users join the site and then create a profile, on which other users can ask them questions or make statements. Even if you are logged into your profile, though, users have the option to post questions anonymously. Some of these posts follow the similar pattern of middle and high school drama and curiosity, with anonymous questions like “who do you think is cute in class?” or “if you can only choose one, who is your best friend?” But the questions can quickly turn inappropriate, if not downright sinister, and just as quickly escalate into cyberbullying.

In just over a year, cyberbullying on Ask.fm has been named as a contributing factor in nine teenage suicides. The site gives teens a platform to anonymously post hateful comments, not even under the guise of a question. Accounts can be, and too often are, flooded with comments encouraging users to harm themselves. Comments about physical appearance, and weight in particular, plaster the profiles of already insecure teenagers. When used with ill intentions, as it very commonly is, the site is a hotbed for mostly unregulated cyberbullying.

Many adults are left asking why teens still use the site, with so many negative repercussions of becoming a part of the masses. Superficial attention is a big part of the site’s appeal, which is dangerous for an age group that is notorious for sharing a lot, and often too much, online. This sharing can become addictive, and the opportunity to respond to comments can sometimes be hard to pass up for a teen eager to make their voice heard. And though parents may roll their eyes, many teens would likely argue that they have an Ask.fm profile “because everybody else does.”

Thankfully, after the explosion of bad press the site received this summer, including several petitions to have the site shut down, Ask.fm’s founders have promised to make small changes to clean up the site, such as making the “report” button more visible and hiring more staff to moderate posts. These changes won’t be fully implemented until Spring 2014, though, and for the most part are only enforcing policies that already exist on the site.

In general, we at Choices/TeenBeing don’t encourage censorship as much as we encourage awareness. Pay attention to your teen’s behavior, and take notice of how social media is affecting them. If they appear nervous or anxious after going online or receiving a text message or e-mail, this could be a warning sign that they’re receiving negative attention online. We encourage you to talk to your teens about their online profiles, especially on Ask.fm, and remind them that hateful comments are no more truthful when posted anonymously, and their worth is not determined by anyone or anything they may come across online.

How do you talk to your teens about cyberbullying and sites like Ask.fm? Help out your fellow parents, teachers, and role models, and leave your advice in the comments below.