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."
What do you think about ask.fm? Are your teenagers using it? What is the allure of such sites?