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Today’s children have never known a world without Google. Their entire lives have been in the digital age, and they’re often far more tech-savvy than their parents. With that in mind, it’s more important than ever for parents to understand the technology landscape and educate their children about the proper uses — and hidden dangers — of the Internet and social media.
One social media service that has become rather controversial is Ask.fm. It’s a question and answer site that’s really popular among the 11–14 crowd, and while its premise is harmless enough, anonymous interactions on the platform have proven worrisome for parents.
Before we dive into this, I want to note that I would never advise parents to limit their children’s use of technology as a whole or forbid certain aspects of it without explaining why. You’re not preparing your kids for the real world by sheltering them from the Internet, but it would be wise to teach them about the potential dangers and urge them to steer clear.
With that said, let’s take a look at why many parents have taken issue with Ask.fm.
Ask.fm is the Perfect Cyberbullying Platform
Due to its anonymous nature, Ask.fm is quite conducive to cyberbullying. What better platform for bullying than one where you can say whatever you want anonymously?
Using Ask.fm’s “See who’s here” panel on the homepage, it took me about 20 seconds to find this (messages are in reverse-chronological order):
Here’s another example:
Again, it didn’t take long to find these just by browsing a few public profiles. And this is just the tip of the iceberg — many profiles are dominated by these types of messages.
As the video below by What’s The Big Deal reports, Ask.fm has been linked to at least six teenage suicides.
Interestingly, the phenomenon of anonymous bullying is not unique to Ask.fm’s teen and pre-teen users — we constantly see similar behavior in comment sections all over the Web. When users are anonymous, they often feel like they can say anything they want without fear of consequences. Combine that with the tendency to forget that there are real human beings with real feelings on the other side of the screen, and you’ve got a recipe for disaster.
Anonymous Questions Often Turn Sexual
Ask.fm’s anonymity also brings sexually explicit messages to the table. Because any user can ask any other user a question (anonymously), there’s no telling whether your child is talking to someone their age or someone much older. Either way, questions like these are problematic:
And it goes on:
Clearly, these are not appropriate (or legal) requests for 11–14-year olds — but they happen so frequently. In the time I spent browsing the website, I found far more cases of sexual remarks to minors than I care to count.
Ask.fm Is a Public Gateway to Private Conversations
The conversations that start on Ask.fm don’t necessarily stay on Ask.fm. Many of the platform’s core users are also avid users of Kik, the popular mobile messaging app. For that reason, the question “What’s your Kik?” comes up a lot — often from anonymous users.
Profiles and answers on Ask.fm are public. Anyone with an Internet connection can come along and see someone’s Kik handle if they’ve shared it in a previous answer. I’ve also come across several answers sharing cell phone numbers.
When the users who bully and harass others on Ask.fm get the chance to interact privately, the outcome can’t be good.
What Should You Do?
The Internet is one of the most important advancements in all of human history, and it has done a lot to enrich the lives of people of all ages. But the openness of the Web does have some drawbacks, particularly for children who may not have the greatest judgement or the highest self-esteem at this point in their lives. The culture of Ask.fm is one such drawback.
So what can parents do?
I would suggest talking to your kids about cyberbullying and online safety and advising them to stay away from places like Ask.fm. You could also take a technical approach and install parental controls on your home computer to block access to such sites. Because Ask.fm does not actively police the content on its platform, the responsibility rests on you as a parent to keep your kids safe.
What do you think about Ask.fm? Should the company be held responsible for the terrible behavior of some of its users? Have you or has anyone you know experienced cyberbullying or sexual harassment online? Please share your thoughts in the comments below!