Would you, at any stage today, go into a shop, bar or restaurant, approach someone you didn’t know and call them “a fat, ugly slut”? Or say you hope they “die of cancer”, before casually moving on? It happens on ask.fm.
The ask.fm site is most popular among 13- to 18-year-olds; anti-bullying charities have called for it to be boycotted. Parents have been urged to warn their children off using it.
Ask.fm announced this week that it is moving its headquarters to Dublin, from its current site in Latvia. Taoiseach Enda Kenny said on Tuesday that there had been “real concerns and anxiety” about the site, adding that the Department of Children and Youth Affairs can work with the site on the issue of cyberbullying.
Ask.fm’s chief executive, Doug Leeds, speaking about the move to Dublin, said the company had hired the world’s best safety experts to ensure a safe and bully-free environment for users. “The overwhelming majority of people who use the site are using it for entertainment, for conversation.”
With about 175 million users worldwide, ask.fm is seen a parent-free digital space where many young teens get their first experience of social media. Primarily, it allows users to ask and answer questions from other members on the site. Some of the users are anonymous.
The site is generally benign, but a small percentage use it for a form of hate-speak.
Simple to use, ask.fm can be a lively and engaging forum for teenagers to share their views on school, music and TV. But for some it is a magnified version of the school playground, where gangs form, individuals are picked on, and anonymous users post content that even in its most printable form runs to “drink bleach”, “go get cancer”, “go die”. A thirteen-year-old in the UK has been threatened with rape.
The founder of ask.fm, Mark Terebin, has said that in his experience cyberbullying is worst in Ireland and the UK. “It seems children are more cruel in these countries.”
It’s certainly not exclusive to ask.fm. This sort of activity happens on several social-networking sites, but ask.fm does seem to have become a particular source of worry.
Two young girls from Co Donegal, aged 15 and 13, took their own lives in 2012 after being subjected to abuse on the site. Some saw a connection between the posts and the girls’ deaths.
Prominent UK companies – including Vodafone, Specsavers and Laura Ashley – said last year they would not advertise on ask.fm for ethical reasons, following cases there. The British prime minister, David Cameron, said people should boycott “vile” websites that allow cyberbullying.
Although Minister for Foreign Affairs Charlie Flanagan says that “ask.fm relocating to Dublin is a matter of concern”, and that it is an issue he will be raising with his colleagues, the reality is that it matters little where the site has its headquarters. Equally, the site could be banned tomorrow to little or no effect. The conversation would merely move elsewhere.
With due regard for the grief, anger and sadness of parents whose children have lost their lives, a panic about ask.fm in isolation does not address the bigger issue.
On the more grown-up Twitter and Facebook sites, bullying and personally hateful remarks can be contextualised by adults who are generally more inured to their effects. But when your core audience is to 13- to 18-year-olds, it’s different. A 13-year-old today sees content online that would send shivers down the spine of the most robust and broad-minded adult.
Following the death of the 13-year-old Donegal girl Erin Gallagher, in 2012, the founder of ask.fm, Mark Terebin, said that the site could not be held responsible for cyberbullying and that it is “necessary to go deeper and to find the root of the problem. It’s not about ask.fm. The problem is about education and moral values that have been devalued. Start with yourself; be more polite, kinder and more tolerant of others. Cultivate these values in families and in schools.”
Whatever your feelings about ask.fm, Terebin’s point is at least partly true: in the online world, legislating against bullying behaviour is almost impossible – but educating about its causes, context and consequences is not.