What we need to ask about Ask.fm

When one mentions the web site, Ask.fm, unfortunately, it is usually in the same breath as the term cyber-bullying. We all know that bullying is never acceptable but it is something that never goes away from our society. Cyber-bullying is a newer form of bullying, which can infiltrate a victim’s life 24-7. Bullies no longer need to be within the same area as their victims to cause them huge anxiety. As we know, two Irish teenage girls died last year after being contacted on Ask.fm and last week a girl in Leicestershire also died after hurtful comments were written to her on the same web site.

It’s the same with other web sites. For example, a couple of weeks ago, Twitter was the platform used to make dreadful comments about women. Previously, when the pop singer, Adele, had a baby, some people took to Twitter to threaten her. I see it everyday when I log on to any web site that allows comments. Just take a look at any slightly controversial subject on any of the national newspaper sites and you’ll see people abusing each other, most often complete strangers. While Ask.fm is used almost solely by teenagers, abusing people on the Internet appears to be a social issue across ages and genders. I left a well-known Irish education forum a few years ago due to comments of a personal nature.

When I look at the term, social media, I don’t think the problem lies with the “media,” I think the problem lies thoroughly with the “social.”

Before I go on, I’m not an expert in the psychology of why online abuse or cyber-bullying happens. However, when I look at the term, social media, I don’t think the problem lies with the “media,” I think the problem lies thoroughly with the “social.” Because I’m not an expert, there are more than likely going to be things in this article that are wrong. I would appreciate it if I am pointed in the right direction where I am wrong. My plan is to explore what we need to ask ourselves about Social Media and why teenagers are self-harming and killing themselves.

Social Media has transformed the way we use the Internet. People are able to connect with each other without being in the same room, or even the same country and they are able to collaborate in real time with each other. For example, Google Docs allows hundreds of people work together on a document at the same time and create something. Some web sites enable people to ask a question and get feedback. For example, Doctors 2.0 is a web site that lets users ask questions about particular medical questions and a group of doctors will help to answer these questions. Forums (or fora) are used for people to be able to have conversations about various topics. Teachers have the Education Posts Forum; parents have Rollercoaster or MagicMum. Whatever your interest, there’s a forum for you. Some of these web sites are moderated, some aren’t. Some of these web sites are anonymous; some aren’t.

Ask.fm, Twitter, Facebook, most blogs and several thousand other sites give all Internet users the power to add content. 99.9% of the time, this is used for good. The problem is the time when they aren’t. What do we need to do about this?

Should we shut down Ask.fm?

One of the most common things I’ve been hearing is that we should shut down web sites like Ask.fm. I do not believe this is the answer. Over the last year, since the tragic deaths of the two teenage girls in Ireland, Ask.fm have added features to help with cyber-bullying. On their website, they state:

If you receive a question that makes you uncomfortable for any reason, do not respond to the question, tell a parent, guardian or other trusted adult and block the user who sent it so they can’t contact you again. If the person keeps bothering you, report abuse to us by pressing the Report button and to law enforcement.

In fact, Ask.fm have a complete page dedicated to keeping safe on their site with sound advice. They now allow users to not be anonymous. They also have a report button. They also advise young people to speak to an adult or the police. If we ban Ask.fm, young people will simply find an alternative web site that probably won’t have these safety features. The problem doesn’t appear to be the web site, the problem is how it is being used.

Should we ban children from sites like Ask.fm?

Another suggestion that I have heard is to ban young people from using web sites such as Ask.fm. Many parents do this. I’m not so sure this is the complete answer either. For example, most parents try to ban their youngsters from drinking, smoking, drugs, sex and all sorts of other things that are illegal or risky. How many adults can honestly say they didn’t do the things that their parents banned. It’s the same with social media. Any young person who wants to use the Internet will find a way of doing so. In fact, it’s much easier to access web sites than it is to access any of the above examples! Therefore, banning a child may only make things worse. It’s possibly likely that a vulnerable young person may not speak with a parent if they feel they may be in trouble.

Shouldn’t we ensure Web 2.0 is not anonymous?

Anonymity can change the way someone uses the Internet. Many people will not comment on a blog or in a forum unless it is anonymous. However, is this a good idea? I believe scrapping anonymity is desirable but it’s probably impossible to enforce. Sometimes the “cloak of anonymity” can be a positive thing. For example, Childline is an anonymous listening service for children. However, I have do agree that anonymity is very risky. I always give an analogy of anonymity and the Internet in the following way. I feel that using the Internet is very like driving a car.

Take the example of walking into a building and the person ahead of you doesn’t hold the door open for you, as chivalry would dictate. It’s highly unlikely that you would chase after them, make open lewd gestures or even shout abuse at them. However, bring yourself into a car and somebody doesn’t let you out of a side road or parking space. For whatever reason, it’s likely that you’ll do some of the above! Why? I believe it’s because you have the cloak of invisibility of your car. The same goes for the Internet. People are much braver and will say things that they wouldn’t say to someone else’s face.

Can we stop anonymous Internet access? The answer is a definite, “no,” so we need to think of what we can do.

Should Ask.fm be more socially responsible?

Recently, I was on the radio and I was asked whether sites like Ask.fm should be socially responsible and put more money into moderating their web site. The argument went along the lines that companies make lots of money from vulnerable people using them. Due to this, isn’t it correct that the company should moderate what is being written?

To be honest, I think Ask.fm have been as socially responsible as they can without crippling their business. There is a balance that they need to keep between being a place where young people can feel free to speak and a place where they feel they are being policed. If they feel they are being policed, they will leave to another web site with less strict controls. While it would be desirable for social media web sites to become more socially responsible, much like anonymity, it’s almost impossible to manage this.

I’m also torn as to whether it is Ask.fm’s responsibility for the bad stuff that goes on when people are using their web site. Their goal is to allow young people ask questions and get answers. It’s not to settle feuds or to encourage bullying. They are not in denial about their site being used and they have excellent, easy-to-understand guidelines about using the site safely. For example:

Be smart about the content you share. Never share personal information like phone numbers, email addresses or home addresses on your page. Block and report users who break our Terms of service, and tell an adult if you’re being targeted. Don’t respond to questions that are inappropriate or abusive.

I wonder if we applied the same logic to other risky businesses such as cigarette or alcohol companies, would it be fair? For example, every time a young person bought alcohol or cigarettes, should the producer of them be responsible? We know that cigarettes kill one in two people. We also know that alcohol is one of the biggest killers in Ireland. What more do the companies behind these products do other than give guidelines or advice?

This brings us on to the question of who should be the enforcer of social responsibility if it isn’t a business’ job? Is it the government? Perhaps, schools need to teach more about social media? Maybe parents are the ones who should be the driving force.


Last Update: August 8, 2017  

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