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.

 

 

Meet the boy the bullies broke [ thestar.com, by Heather Mallick, 18/10/2011]

 COURTESY HUBLEY FAMILY / THE CANADIAN PRESS Ottawa city councillor Allan Hubley poses with his son Jamie in this family photo released on Monday Oct. 17, 2011. Hubley says bullying was part of the reason his 15-year-old son took his own life.

COURTESY HUBLEY FAMILY / THE CANADIAN PRESS
Ottawa city councillor Allan Hubley poses with his son Jamie in this family photo released on Monday Oct. 17, 2011. Hubley says bullying was part of the reason his 15-year-old son took his own life.

What a shockingly beautiful boy Jamie Hubley was. The ruddy hair, the smokin’ wide grin, that shy downward look — I’m wild and bold but, um, maybe not so much, the look seemed to say — as he sang Lady Gaga’s new song, “Born This Way,” on YouTube.

Jamie was only 15, which is why I’m journalistic ethics-wise allowed to refer to him by his first name, as if he were a friend of mine. And how I wish he had been. This kid could have helped my sadness, I could have helped his, he would have brought credit and affection and candour to everyone who knew him, but now he’s dead, no chance now.

When brightness falls, it falls so hard. Watch Jamie singing. He doesn’t get the low notes quite right. It makes your heart crack.

The Ottawa schoolboy died Saturday of human cruelty, profoundly depressed after years of being bullied for being gay. He killed himself. I’m astonished to read that he was being hounded even in Grade 7 — students tried to stuff batteries down his throat on the school bus after he chose figure skating over ice hockey — but then I remember Grade 7 and what little animals we were.

We were allowed to behave like rodents then, sharp-toothed and scurrying in packs, looking to munch on whatever was available, including each other.

The starter efforts at talking openly about teen suicide give the best advice extant, that time is a healer, that this too shall pass. Jamie wrote in his online suicide note: “It’s just too hard. I don’t want to wait three more years, this hurts too much. How do you even know it will get better? It’s not.”

You can’t tell a 15-year-old to wait three years. To him, it sounds like 30, which to a teenager is practically dead anyway. And when I look at middle-aged people, including many in public life, who can’t admit publicly that they’re gay, it’s clear that time heals nothing. We all fear bullying.

Foolishly, I thought this was generational and that kids were taught to be different now, more humane. As schools become multiracial, girls dare to speak up in class and be smart and everyone’s online and typing out the contents of their souls, I assumed that kids like Jamie, who wanted to sing or act rather than just go into thick-necked grunting mode for the course of their adolescence, would find a place to flourish.

I was wrong. The kids who called Jamie names in the hallway, who tore down his posters for a Rainbow club at A.Y. Jackson Secondary School (this was the school he moved to in an effort to escape bullies), the teenagers who mocked him online, we all went to school with those kids. Maybe we were those kids. Maybe we still are.

There a little dark creature inside all of us, a homunculus as it was known in the Middle Ages, or a tiny human. He is filled with meanness. I always imagine him looking like one of the black pond tadpoles I remember from childhood, little slippery lumps of menace. (In fact, of course, they were harmless and the neighbourhood boys should not have set them on fire.)

Well, there’s a little hate generator in every one of us and he’s the source of the bullying we see in politics, school, workplaces, hockey rinks, talk radio, yell TV, tabloid newspapers and especially online. We live in a bullying culture, in which I suggest you not be gay or a native Canadian or unemployed or in any non-powerful group. Don’t go online if you’re vulnerable.

But who spends the most time online, aside from the old Angry Pajamas of extremist politics? Teenagers, naturally.

If it helps to personalize it, picture your inner nasty as the icon you see on the doors of public toilets, but armed with a pitchfork. Instantly recognizably as Average Guy, he doesn’t just live inside the kids who helped drive Jamie to suicide, he lives inside all of us.

The trick of being civilized is that we silence him when he pokes our mean gland. And he’s not necessarily male. Females are talented bullies with a real eye for where the shiv will do the most emotional damage. No? Rent Mean Girls and see what I mean.

High school is the distillation of our lives, with a term limit, filled with cliques and home to the best and worst of our traits. Remember those hallways lined with lockers, which I recall happily but now realize must have seemed to the bullied kids like a gauntlet they had to run over and over, five days a week. What I wonder is if Jamie’s tormentors understand even now what they did and why.

As Jamie wrote in his last post on his Tumblr blog, “To the people who didn’t like me (many) a big f –k you. Go ride a unicorn.”

And then he adds, “But we love you anyway.”

Even as he headed for death, he had to add, in a clause from a naturally kind heart, some forgiveness for his tormentors.

I cannot get over this.

I’m hoping the schoolmates who mocked and tormented Jamie can’t get over it either. They’re not going to be better people until they confront their own cruelty.

We won’t stigmatize bullying until we force the bullies to understand what they do what they do, that an ugly voice emerges from the black dot inside you, urging you on to call kids like Jamie a “fag.”

Depression was Jamie’s constant, the kind of depression that is implacable in the face of total family love, medical care, counselling and loyal friends. Jamie’s father, Allan, wrote in his public statement that for most of his life, Jamie was “a happy and confident child.” Later, though, he asked “a question no child should have to ask — why do people say mean things to me?”

Hubley pointed out that cyber-bullying has created a new problem. There is no longer any refuge. “Children often feel there is no safe place to go; even when they are at home they can still be victims.”

Jamie knew his tormentors were reading his blog. “You bent me until I broke. Happy? You win,” he wrote just days before he killed himself. A student at his school wrote on the new R.I.P. Jamie website, “I had seen him earlier that day [the day of his death] and he had cuts all over his wrists, his arms, even his face.”

This matches Jamie’s single sentence entry, “Cut my face.” At this point he was in such despair that he no longer minded handing the confessional gift of his pain to those who were out to hurt him. A day later he quoted from another blog, a list of wounds that would not be the list of a depressed university student or a dentist or rape victim. It is quintessentially high school. It includes being “the first one to ask to hang out, the only one to try, not being invited.”

“F— high school and f— having shitty friends.” These words aren’t the whole truth of Jamie’s life but only the last miserable segment of it.

Look at his face as his handsome father proudly poses with his hand on the shoulder of his beloved child. Jamie, in a dress shirt with black bow tie, had clearly been in the spotlight. The photograph radiates love and happiness and is the portrait Allan Hubley chose to represent the bond he had with his 15-year-old darling.

What chills me is that Jamie’s bullies probably thought this picture was funny. I hope they’re not laughing now.

If they are, they haven’t learned to suppress their inner dark voice, the little hate lump urging them to deflect the hate that might come their way.

“You can’t break when you’re already broken.” That was the title of Jamie’s blog and the last words he saw. He was gay and bullies broke him.

Now we will have to reassemble our memories and our morals so that maybe no one like Jamie breaks again. But I suspect there will be other Jamies.