Just when parents thought they got a handle on Facebook and Twitter, along came another social media site. But this one is unlike others. It’s a site called Ask.fm, and it allows people to post anything they want anonymously. It’s hugely popular among teens, and among bullies who can hide behind anonymity, as they troll for victims.
One of our viewers recently reached out to us to tell us her family’s story. Her daughter, who is twelve, received a post on her Ask.fm page, which read in part:
“Everyone hates you. You’re no good for anyone. You don’t deserve to go to heaven. Your gonna burn in hell. It goes on to say… I can’t even explain how ugly you are. You should cut yourself and go too deep that way you’d kill yourself. You should commit suicide. No one would care.”
The victim’s mom says, “Something needs to be done. It needs to stop. We need to protect these kids.”
We kept her family’s identity hidden to protect the daughter, who says, “I don’t understand. Some people are innocent and don’t deserve to get bad messages like that.”
But countless teens are getting messages like that.
Hannah Smith, Jessica Laney, and Ciara Pugsly, are among the teens that used Ask.fm, whose families say committed suicide after being relentlessly bullied online. By some accounts, 9 teen suicides have been linked to the site just this past year.
“We need to start somewhere to take control of this situation somehow as parents…as society, to make it safer for kids to be on the Internet,” says our viewer.
As it stands, Pennsylvania has some of the loosest anti-bullying and harassment regulations in the nation. So, bringing charges against online bullies, can be tough. And in the case of Ask.fm, people post anonymously.
Officer Brandon Nolan of the Southwestern Regional police department says, “When it’s anonymous, they mean anonymous….and it gets real tough to track that person down.”
Here’s another complicating factor. Ask.fm is run by two brothers from Latvia, so jurisdiction and security policies are tough to pin down.
“They’re out of the country, they don’t have to abide by local subpeonas or search warrants from local departments. They don’t have to get back in touch with you,” adds Officer Nolan.
Unlike Facebook, all the posts to Ask.fm can be seen by everyone. Posts are public, adding to the agony for teens who are targeted by cruelty.
“I could think about it all day, and not get upset about it…but it’s mostly when I see my mom get upset that I’m in tears about it. I don’t like to see my mom cry,” says our 12 year-old victim.
We contacted Ask.fm by e-mail about this story and the reported suicides, and they released this statement saying in part:
“Sadly, bullying can take place anywhere, so it is important that we, parents and users work together to fight it. As such, our reporting facilities have been improved and are now more prominent.”
Tough consequences for bullies might help put a stop to the problem. But even though our viewer’s daughter pinpointed her bully, there are no laws on the book that can hold her accountable.
Officer Nolan says, “It would be like a harrassment charge but it would have to have certain aspects involved to charge someone like that. A continuous type of contact.. Some sort of threat involved.”
It’s a frustrating revelation for the mom, who is now talking to lawmakers to put some sort of cyber-bullying law on the book.
In the meantime, her daughter isn’t allowing online bullies to break her, but she is worried about others. “I don’t want people to go out and commit suicide because of someone that doesn’t feel good about themselves has to go out and do this to other people…and i don’t want people to feel like they’re worth nothing.”
Monday, we’re talking to counselors to learn the signs of a teenager who’s being bullied. We’re also finding out how parents can protect their teens online.
We reached out to Ask.fm and they replied with the following statement:
Ask.fm is a place where people can have fun, share information, make friends and express themselves freely. What makes our site unique, and a reason why our users love it, is the opportunity to ask questions anonymously. The majority of our users are teenagers and the anonymity option provides them with a platform to form and share opinions without the fear of being judged.
We know that our users appreciate this as the vast majority of questions asked on Ask.fm are done so anonymously. It is vitally important to us that they are able to do this in a safe and secure way. We also understand that not everyone wants to receive anonymous questions. That is why every user has the ability to opt out of receiving them.
Every day millions of our users ask each other questions without revealing their identities. This does not mean that those users are unaccountable, or that they should be free to abuse others. Only a very small number of people abuse this function but, as part of our safety controls, even if a user chooses to ask questions anonymously, in almost all cases it is possible for us to identify who and where they are.
We recently announced a series of changes to Ask.fm to ensure that our abuse and inappropriate content reporting systems are among the most effective in the industry.
We are pleased to say that many of these changes are already in place and we are working hard to ensure the rest are implemented as soon as possible.
The preeminent online child safety expert, Annie Mullins OBE, is reviewing all of our policies and advising us on the best way to keep our online community safe.
Sadly, bullying can take place anywhere, so it is important that we, parents and users work together to fight it. As such, our reporting facilities have been improved and are now more prominent.
Anyone can report inappropriate content, no matter where on the site they see it. We now have an ‘in-question’ reporting function, which enables our users to highlight any question they find inappropriate with just one click.
If a user sees something that isn’t right before we do, we would ask that they help us stand up to bullies by reporting it. Any complaints made about this kind of abuse are prioritised automatically and our team of moderators are committed to dealing with them as soon as possible.
Ask.fm is committed to doing everything it can to protect its users and stamp out bullying or any other kind of abuse.