Ask.fm may base itself in Ireland, but social-media abuse isn’t about geography. [ IrishTimes, by Brian Boyd, 8/11/2014].

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.

Bullying behaviour, by both teens and adults, is endemic to social-media dialogue. And the worst bullying comes from those afforded anonymity.

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.

Call for watchdog to tackle bullying online. [Examiner, by Sarah Slater, 10/11/2014].

Jim Harding, founder of the anti-bullying group Bully4U, also called for more powers to independently audit social media organisations such as Ask.fm, Facebook and Twitter.

Bully4U provides training to children and teachers at primary and secondary school on the dangers of cyberbullying. It warns that a huge number of schoolchildren they deal with say many social media comments are of “an extreme sexual nature”.

Mr Harding has made the call for Government to introduce “badly needed” statutory powers following the announcement that Ask.fm, which allows users to post anonymous questions to others, is to relocate to Ireland.

Bully4U deals with thousands of schoolchildren every year and, in conjunction with the National Anti-Bullying Research and Resource Centre at Dublin City University, held the first national cyberbullying conference in September.

“There really needs to be more substantial powers to independently audit such websites as Ask.fm. People can just post comments anonymously, so there needs to be some sort of trail so that posts can be verified. Such posts include; ‘Go die, you are worthless,’” Mr Harding said.

“Having Ask.fm located in Dublin makes no difference when it comes to the use of social media as it has no worldwide borders. Hopefully one good thing of having the social media website located here is that it will push for the creation of a social media ombudsman, allowing these companies to be independently audited and for the introduction of fines if certain guidelines are not followed by these companies.

“Up to 30% of children we deal with feel that Twitter is the safest of the social media networks in use. Urgent measures to stop the creation of false social media accounts set up by children who are under the age of 13, need to be in place. Parents feel they have no influence in their children’s internet usage.”

Ask.fm in a statement said it plans to introduce a “law enforcement affairs officer” based in Ireland.

Foreign Affairs Minister Charlie Flanagan has also voiced concern on Ask.fm moving to Ireland and intends to raise the issue with the Government.

Ask.fm has come under scrutiny following the deaths by suicide of 15-year-old Ciara Pugsley in Leitrim and 13-year-old Erin Gallagher in Donegal in 2012. Erin’s older sister Shannon took her life soon afterwards. Their mother Lorraine has campaigned to have the site shut down.

Jonathan Pugsley, whose daughter Ciara took her life following alleged cyberbullying and who has condemned the relocating of Ask.fm to Ireland, said it “is worrying that the popularity of the site was increasing again”.

Ask.fm chief executive Doug Leeds said: “I can tell you that there are 180m global unique users that visit Ask.fm each month. Ireland is still a relatively small market for us, but we’ve seen 30% growth for registered users in Ireland in the last year.

“In terms of daily new registered users on a global scale, there were 400,000 new users in one day (earlier this year) caused by a spike in registrations in Thailand in April. In the last three months, the average number of daily registrations is between 120,000 and 140,000.”

Spotlight on Ask.fm after teen suicide [ Channel 4 News, 08/06/2013 ]

The e-petition calls for ministers to “step in and insist that Ask.fm and similar sites help us protect our young people” following the death of Hannah Smith at her home in Lutterworth, Leicestershire, on Friday.

Her father said users of the website, which lets teenagers ask each other anonymous questions, had been taunting Hannah and telling her to die.

Bullies reportedly told Hannah to “drink bleach”, “go get cancer” and “go die”.

The petition had been signed by more than 5,000 supporters within hours of being posted on the government’s e-petitions website.

Hannah’s father Dave Smith has called for Ask.fm to be closed down, adding: “The person that created this website should be done for manslaughter. Any parents that have children please don’t let them go on this site.”

Ask.fm has become very popular with young teenagers since its launch  in 2010 and claims to have 60 million registered users, with British  teens some of the biggest customers. The ability to post anonymous questions on other user's profiles makes the site a hotspot for so-called "trolling". It  took Channel 4 News seconds to create an Ask.fm profile with a false  name. All users are supposed to be over 13 but the only age control  relies on users volunteering a genuine date of birth. It was  immediately apparent that users, many of them young girls, routinely  suffer insulting, unpleasant and sexually explicit comments. But  users do have the option to turn off anonymous comments and to  "blacklist" other members. The website also advises users to use the Report button to flag up "questions that cross the line". Ask.fm  advises users: "If you receive a question that makes you uncomfortable  for any reason, do not respond to the question, tell a parent, guardian or other trusted adult and block the user who sent it so they can't  contact you again." The site says anonymity "can be useful if  you're feeling shy or think that the recipient would be more comfortable answering a question without knowing who may have asked it". It  says anonymity "should never be used to ask questions that are mean or  hurtful" and warns prospective trolls that it reserves the right to hand  over their identity details to law enforcement agencies if necessary. Ask.fm  also warns users as part of its terms of service: "You understand that  in using the ask.fm service you may encounter content that may be deemed  objectionable, obscene or in poor taste, which content may or may not  be identified as having explicit language."
Ask.fm has become very popular with young teenagers since its launch in 2010 and claims to have 60 million registered users, with British teens some of the biggest customers.
The ability to post anonymous questions on other user’s profiles makes the site a hotspot for so-called “trolling”.
It took Channel 4 News seconds to create an Ask.fm profile with a false name. All users are supposed to be over 13 but the only age control relies on users volunteering a genuine date of birth.
It was immediately apparent that users, many of them young girls, routinely suffer insulting, unpleasant and sexually explicit comments.
But users do have the option to turn off anonymous comments and to “blacklist” other members. The website also advises users to use the Report button to flag up “questions that cross the line”.
Ask.fm advises users: “If you receive a question that makes you uncomfortable for any reason, do not respond to the question, tell a parent, guardian or other trusted adult and block the user who sent it so they can’t contact you again.”
The site says anonymity “can be useful if you’re feeling shy or think that the recipient would be more comfortable answering a question without knowing who may have asked it”.
It says anonymity “should never be used to ask questions that are mean or hurtful” and warns prospective trolls that it reserves the right to hand over their identity details to law enforcement agencies if necessary.
Ask.fm also warns users as part of its terms of service: “You understand that in using the ask.fm service you may encounter content that may be deemed objectionable, obscene or in poor taste, which content may or may not be identified as having explicit language.”

The Child Exploitation and Online Protection Centre (Ceop) issued guidance on anonymous messaging sites including Ask.fm last year, saying: “The content Ceop has seen has been heavily based around bullying, however sexual chat and imagery is also apparent.”

But concerns about the site among child protection experts have centred on bullying rather than grooming by adult sex offenders.

Emma-Jane Cross from campaign group BeatBullying said thousands of young people like Hannah “face a daily barrage of online abuse, death threats and harassment”. She said as many as one in three young people are cyber-bullied and one in 13 faces persistent online abuse.

Peter Wanless, chief executive of the NSPCC, said: “The cruel nature of cyber-bullying allows perpetrators to remain anonymous and hide behind their screens. This is something that must be tackled before it gets out of hand.”

Other deaths

Hannah’s death comes after at least four other teenagers’ deaths were linked to bullying on Ask.fm.

Joshua Unsworth, 15, from Lancashire, was taunted by bullies on the site.

Jessica Laney, 16, was found dead at her home in Florida in December after anonymous bullies bombarded her with insults and asked: “Can you kill yourself already?”

The deaths of Irish schoolgirls Ciara Pugsley and Erin Gallagher last year were also linked to abuse on Ask.fm.

On Tuesday Ciara’s father Jonathan Pugsley said he sympathised with Hannah’s family and added his voice to calls for the site to be closed down.

Suicide rate stable

Despite worrying reports of young people killing themselves after online bullying, the overall UK suicide rate has remained relatively stable in recent years, according to various official statistics.

The Samaritans, who produced this graph, said in its latest report that there was a small increase in rates between 2010 and 2011, but suicides per 100,000 people remain lower than in 2001.

06_samaritans_MED

Men in their 40s are at the highest risk of suicide. While official statistics are not collected for under-15s, the number of suicides among children and young teenagers is low, according to the Samaritans.

British children ‘more cruel’

The owners of the site, Latvian entrepreneurs Mark and Ilja Terebin, have so far not commented directly on Hannah’s death.

Last year Mark Terebin gave a statement to Irish broadcaster RTE, saying: “We have only this situation in Ireland and the UK most of all. It seems that children are more cruel in these countries.”

In other statements, Ask.fm has said that it monitors content on the site around the clock and has policies in place to prevent antisocial behaviour.

A Facebook tribute page has been set up for Hannah and already had more than 33,000 “likes” by Tuesday afternoon. A small number of trolls had angered wellwishers by posting abusive messages.

 

 

Is ask.fm dangerous? [The New Zealand Herald, by Shelley Bridgeman, 13/06/2013 ]

Ask.fm is a dangerous place for cyber bullying. Photo / Thinkstock
Ask.fm is a dangerous place for cyber bullying. Photo / Thinkstock

I became aware of the social networking site ask.fm in April when a mother of a girl in my daughter’s class copied me in on a letter she’d sent to the school principal.

Highlighting the issue of cyber-bullying, this mother asked the school to become even more proactive in addressing this problem.

She identified ask.fm – which she described as “a website where users are able to ask anonymous questions of other users and are able to post anonymous comments” – as being especially popular and potentially very damaging to users who are sitting ducks if a bully wants to target them. Further, she wrote: “the website has an insidious undertone, as it gives the more furtive bully the opportunity to post negative comments about people they would normally never … address that way in real life.”

This mother raised a couple of interesting points that are potential barriers to solving the problem of cyber-bullying. Firstly, she suggested that some parents suffer from my-child-would-never-do-something-like-that syndrome which is obviously unhelpful because, let’s face it, all bullying is perpetrated by someone’s little darling. Secondly, she alluded to instances in which cyber-bullying (if it is at the milder end of the spectrum) is easy for some people to shrug off as just a bit of teasing rather than psychologically damaging to vulnerable children.

To underscore the seriousness of her message she noted the case of Joshua Unsworth, a 15-year-old English boy found hanged in the wake of cyber-bullying. According to the Daily Mail, he “had endured months of abusive messages on his profile on ask.fm, which has been described by child safety experts as a ‘stalker’s paradise’.” The death of Stephanie Garrett, a 15-year-old Palmerston North girl, has also been associated with bullying via the same website.

On my first visit to ask.fm, which is billed as a “simple conversational Q&A service”, the first page I clicked on belonged to a New Zealand girl who was being bullied. I emailed the woman who had drawn my attention to it: “OMG I looked earlier at some ask.fm pages. The questions and abuse were terrible. All anonymous. The poor 16-year-old girl asking ‘who is this?’ and being told she’s fat, ugly, needs to get over [a personal loss I won’t reveal] … and has she lost her virginity. That would have to be the most screwed up site I’ve seen.”

Two months later I returned to the site and again the first page I opened belonged to a local girl. The most recent comment on her page was: “Your a ugly slut and i hate you.” I was appalled. I hadn’t even gone looking for toxic messages yet this was the first thing that turned up.

Young people are initiating this sort of cyber-bullying every single day with no accountability. And that’s the root of the problem. The ability to place anonymous questions/comments enables users to be as nasty as they like because they face no consequences. Ask.fm is a dangerous little cyber-world that provides the perfect conditions in which bullying can flourish.

Based in Latvia and with 40-million users, this website is a global phenomenon which can be accessed in any one of 28 languages. Ostensibly its purpose is to simply allow young people to communicate with each other. But for every harmless question – such as “Favourite item of clothing and why?”, “How was your day” and “Good looking guys in year 11?” – there’s something irretrievably nasty such as “You are not popular stop thinking you are” and “send this bitch hate, she cuts herself”.

In response to concerns about ask.fm, Netsafe offers advice to users: “We recommend that all young people prevent anonymous questions being posted. This can be done by pressing ‘Settings’ – ‘Privacy’ and choosing ‘Do not allow anonymous questions’.” Netsafe says that it’s also possible to block any user who is harassing you.

But evidence would suggest that ask.fm is potentially so harmful that surely parents should consider stopping their youngsters from accessing the site altogether. That certainly seems to be the view of the NZ Police who “urged extreme caution” and the police national media manager who said, “The prime message is don’t use it.”