Anna Leask

Anna Leask is senior police reporter for the New Zealand Herald.

Victims and families speak out

It starts out as harmless fun, teenagers asking each other random questions and getting to know each other online. Photo / Getty Images
It starts out as harmless fun, teenagers asking each other random questions and getting to know each other online. Photo / Getty Images

It's all the rage - and all the kids are doing it.

But many are also being subjected to horrendous abuse, threats and bullying while using the social networking site Ask.fm. It starts out as harmless fun, teenagers asking each other random questions and getting to know each other online. But it can soon turn very nasty, and instead of turning their backs on the site, young Kiwis are being sucked into a vicious cycle of curiosity - and pain. The Herald spoke to teens and their parents in New Zealand about their experiences on Ask.fm.

Case study one
A central Auckland mum allowed her 12-year-old daughter to create an Ask.fm profile, believing it was harmless.

The schoolgirl left her page open on her mother's laptop, revealing exactly what was going on online.

Messages on the page included: "I hate you, you're a bitch, you're a slut and you're a waste of space.

Go and kill yourself."

"It was just cruel. I was horrified," her mother said.

"I could barely believe my eyes over what my 12-year-old was being subjected to. And then, it was 'send naked pictures'."

Her daughter's friends had also been sent "vile" pornographic images.

"And one girl was threatened with assault, they said they were going to grind her face into the road," the mother said.

"It's very frightening."

The woman has been monitoring Ask.fm ever since, especially her daughter's friends'. She sends a complaint to the company every time she finds an abusive comment but says nothing is done. She also contacts the child's school if she can and alerts them in a bid to get them help if they need it.

"One of the boys is suffering terrible abuse. He's been told 'everyone hates you ... everyone would be be happier if you killed yourself'. Then he's being asked by his friends when he's going to do it. This boy is 12 and he's just despairing, suicidal."

Her daughter deactivated her own account and switched to Facebook, where she can have contact with only the people she chooses. But the lure of Ask.fm was still there.

"It's addictive, there is such strong pressure to be part of their peer group and if you're not on it, you're just not cool," the mother said.

"It's what their group uses to communicate and if you're not on you'll be left out and won't know what's going on."

The mother worried that it was only a matter of time until someone in New Zealand died as a result of bullying on the site.

'I don't think we're far off that at all. At that age, if you're told over and over and over again to kill yourself, that you're worthless - how long will it take for you to believe it and do it?

"There are three kids around our area alone who are talking about killing themselves because of prolonged, relentless abuse - I really don't think it's far off actually happening."

The woman said blocking Ask.fm in New Zealand wouldn't help, because a similar site would eventually replace it.

But she wanted the owners to be harder on bullying and to prevent people from making anonymous comments.

"They've created a monster, the perfect environment for this kind of abuse ... to torment someone mentally and emotionally until they are driven to hurt themselves. It's ugly."

Case study two
A 14-year-old Auckland girl started hurting herself and spent months in counselling after being bullied on Ask.fm. But she still cannot bring herself to shut her page.

"At first it was harmless, questions like 'what's your favourite colour?' and stuff like that," she said.

"The hate started this year. People called me a slut and other things. At first I just laughed it off...

"Every time I get a question I'm scared that it's going to be hate. But I'm still curious. I deactivated my account when it got bad and I had no intention of ever using it again but I heard everyone was talking about me on it so I went back.

The "hate" started to intensify after the teenager's boyfriend died this year. She was abused for paying tribute to him, and told she was "too ugly for him".

"When people say you're not pretty, it doesn't hurt because you already believe that. The things that hurt the most are when they say things about people you care about."

Her mother is continually worried about the site "She says that she just laughs it off but I know that she doesn't." The woman goes online each night and checks her children's Ask.fm profiles.

"I stalk them, and message the kids leaving nasty messages. They don't usually respond, but they don't put hate on her page again either."

Case study 3
A 14-year-old girl was already the victim of school bullies when Ask.fm gained popularity among her peers.

Once she had a page, the abuse became torrential and got so bad she was taken out of her school.

Her mother said the questions the tormentors were asking were nasty and "invasive". She was not comfortable repeating what was written on the 14-year-old's page.

"Everyone could see it, it was pretty vicious. She was crying every night, I was really concerned about her mental health," her mother said.

"I went to the school, she didn't want them to know about it, she thought it would get worse.

"And it did. The school did absolutely nothing, it was disastrous."

The 14-year-old eventually changed schools and deactivated her Ask.fm page to escape the bullying.

"But the damage had been done. It was deplorable," her mother said.

"She was really depressed and very teary all the time. I was really concerned. I'd hear about teenage suicide ... I can see exactly how it happens to those kids."

- NZ Herald

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