Ask.fm: just asking for trouble?

A new social media site has gained popularity in Australia. Experts say its anonymity opens up kids to dangerous cyberbullying. Shutterstock

Cyberbullying experts, schools and parents are concerned about another social networking site targeting teens. Ask.fm enables users to post questions; you sign up and people ask you or you ask other people questions, and then share the answers. Sounds innocuous enough, but the rub is that questions can be posted anonymously.

The site encourages teenagers to disclose information about themselves – “Ask.fm allows you to tell people about yourself – and there are people out there who want to know!” – and actively promotes them doing so anonymously:

Teenage years are often a voyage of self-discovery. We make the journey easier by giving our members the option of anonymity. It fosters uninhibited, truthful conversations. It encourages opinions. It builds self-confidence.

Further, when someone signs up, they are prompted to carry over their friends from Facebook, Twitter and other social networking sites. This builds the network exponentially, and exposes young people who haven’t actively joined.

The site was set up by brothers Mark and Ilja Terebin in Latvia in mid-2010, according to Wikipedia as a rival to “spring.me”, a social media platform set up to introduce strangers, but it overtook spring.me’s audience and spring.me is now defunct. At the time I checked, it claimed 120 million registered users, 25 billion answers posted, and being active in 150 countries.

The site has been associated with numerous cases of cyberbullying, which has led to the withdrawal of many advertisers. However the City of Melbourne, CareerOne, and Viator travel still advertise to Australian ask.fm users.

Cybersafety experts Susan McLean and Jeremy Blackman from the Alannah and Madeline Foundation warn against this site in particular as a platform conducive to online bullying.

This is certainly the case, as the site promotes the very things that are most likely to lead to bullying: anonymity, over-disclosure, and lack of monitoring. In its own words:

The fact that you can send messages without other people knowing who you are is part of what makes Ask.fm unique and so much fun. It means that you can ask things that you might be too embarrassed or shy to say if anyone knew it was you. People are often bolder and more honest when they are anonymous, whether they’re asking a question anonymously, or answering a question where they don’t know who’s asked it.

The site appeals in ways that teenagers are uniquely vulnerable. They are naturally egocentric, being in a developmental period of identity exploration. They also have the greatest need for acknowledgement and approval from their peers. They are primed to put themselves out there in search of validation, popularity and compliments.

But the social world is not a benign place, particularly if you expose yourself to millions of people all over the world. It is well-established within the field of social psychology that under conditions of anonymity people are more likely to behave in antisocial ways, and that groups make more extreme choices than individuals do on their own.

In Ask.fm, the conditions are perfect for the negative social effects of deindividualisation and the priming of an anti-social group chain reaction.

Social media sites can be a dangerous place for teens, the need for validation opening them up for ridicule. Flickr/Ctep Americorps, CC BY

Young people can get trapped in both bullying directions: they can get caught up in a group “norm” to bully someone else; as well as over-expose themselves and invite ridicule and vilification. Both being bullied and being involved in bullying are major risks to teenagers’ mental health and wellbeing. It also can be the most vulnerable teens who most expose and put themselves at risk.

Especially concerning is the lack of responsibility of Ask.fm. For example, under its Terms of Use section the question is posed

I have posted something that isn’t allowed and someone has said they are going to sue me. Can you sort it out for me?

The response is

No. If you write or upload something that is not allowed or which bothers or upsets anyone else then you are responsible for any consequences. So think carefully before you write or post anything on the site which you think might not be allowed. We are not responsible for what users write or upload on this site.

There is no active moderation and no acceptance of responsibility. Placing the responsibility on teenage users is not commensurate with their level of maturity ― cognitively, socially or emotionally.

So what can be done?

There is a pipeline of new social media sites developed by modern-day “entrepreneurs”, often with little effort and even less responsibility invested, and in the international realm of the internet it is difficult to police them.

Fortunately, the vanguard Facebook has grown up, acknowledged its power and responsibility, and begun to lead the way in terms of online safety. It is campaigning for emerging and smaller online companies, such as Secret and Snapchat to be compelled to actively monitor and remove harmful content in a timely way.

Meanwhile, young people need to be well-informed, and every effort must be made to enable them to be responsible and resilient users of social media. Parents need greater support, but it is increasingly difficult for them to keep up with the growing and ever-changing array of social media their children have access to.

Ongoing communication is vital ― between parents and their children, schools and their communities, cybersafety experts and the public. Only by working together as a community can we protect those who are most vulnerable, while maintaining the innovation and valued freedom of the online world.

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