Today, while looking for something on the internet I came across a website called ask.fm. Because of the way I have my search engines set up I suddenly realised my children had been on this website several times. Nothing gets my mom radar moving quicker than seeing a website repeatedly visited by both of my children, especially when it has the look and feel of social media (neither of them has yet to turn 13 years old, that skewed and randomly chosen Facebook age of consent).
As I looked at the site with my mom goggles (move over Google you don’t have anything over a mom on an internet sleuthing mission) I became increasingly uncomfortable with what I was reading. Parents, grandparents, teachers, friends, and all concerned adults, you might want to sit down or pull over before reading further. Because what I’m going to tell you will make your skin crawl.
Thankfully, after a few hours of research and several conversations with my children later I was convinced they were not actively participating on this site but that didn’t really matter because the damage had already been done simply by visiting the site and reading the posts.
Ask.fm is a social networking site that enables individuals to ask “questions” of a specific person with an active ask.fm profile. What is so unique and extremely concerning about this site is the one asking the questions is anonymous while the one answering the questions is not (likely the profile of the person answering CAN be anonymous, but the teens and pre-teens whom seem to make up the majority of ask.fm active users answering these questions do not use anonymous profiles).
To restate the purpose of this site…an ANONYMOUS Asker posts a question, ANY question, to a KNOWN person whom is expected to answer that question. I know you all are smart people and I bet you can see where this is going…and you are right! Before you become too comfortable, while you are headed in the right direction after looking at the site it goes far beyond anything one could imagine.
Right before my eyes I saw 11 year olds asked questions related to their personal experiences with sex and drugs (this wasn’t limited to just 11 year olds by the way, those were common and consistent questions on almost every teen’s site). As if the inappropriate questions weren’t harmful enough, I was unprepared for the pervasive, blatant and violent cyber bullying occurring via anonymous tormentor on almost every single ask.fm account I reviewed.
Askers were not just asking questions but they were also posting statements such as “you are a whore, you’re a slut, you’re a bitch, you are fat, you’re ugly,” and the bone chilling and frequent question “why don’t you just kill yourself?” I fancy myself a mom in the know, on top of social media, a mom with adequate parental controls backed up by my own review of my children’s internet usage and that being said this website still had flown completely below my radar.
Now, I’m sure you are much more savvy than I am and are probably thinking to yourself “what an idiot?” and “how can you call yourself an internet savvy mom and NOT know about ask.fm?” Well, I didn’t and after talking to several other parents today they didn’t either. For you “in the know” parents please keep reading because I, actually, we all, need your help!
During the course of my “browsing” I came across the profiles of several of my children’s classmates. Oddly and thankfully none of these students were close friends of my children. In fact, most of them weren’t even actually friends. Of the student profile names my children recognised they were either acquaintances or faces that they recognised and sometimes did and sometimes didn’t know their full names.
There was one profile that concerned me enough to read through months of ask.fm questions and answers. The Q and A painted a picture of a 13 year old youth experiencing a year long, physically abusive dating relationship, participating in and answering questions related to oral sex and suffering repeated bullying and verbal attacks by classmates. I asked my oldest if this student was a friend and they are not. I was taken by surprise to learn that this student is considered very popular and liked by both girls and boys alike. I don’t know why that surprised me, it just did. I didn’t discuss anything I had read with my oldest (some of the questions made me blush and twice I had to look things up on google to know what the question even meant).
So now I’m disturbed and concerned. What do I do with this information? Many would say I should mind my own business while others would demand to know why I hadn’t already been knocking on the principal’s door and some would even question my reading of the Q and A.
The answer isn’t that easy because there did not appear to be any actual or implied threats of violence, even though the questions and the tone of the questions was disturbing. This student’s friends would occasionally chime in with statements of support (which were riddled with expletives) and the ask.fm user would provide a retort to every innocent and hateful comment and/or question.
I found the behaviour of the ask.fm profile owner strange. Responding to hateful postings is not typical social media behaviour. I don’t know enough about this website to understand if there is or isn’t a setting to block an “asker.” Popular teen sites like Facebook, MySpace and Instagram do provide this functionality and is actually often used by profile owners.
What does one do as a parent, who has no clue who this student is other than their name (because it was included with the answers), has never met the parents and isn’t even in the same grade as either one of my own children? And that right there, my hesitation, my questioning of taking action or not, based on inappropriate questions and comments to a 13 year old shouldn’t have happened and is at the very heart of why cyber bullying continues and is growing at a rapid pace.
To help me determine my course of action I turned the situation around and asked myself, would I want a stranger or a parent of one of my children’s school mates whom I had never met and didn’t even know existed, calling me to tell me about what was happening to my kid on the internet? Without thinking twice, without any hesitation there, my answer is a definitive YES!!!!! I wouldn’t like it, I would probably be somewhat defensive but I would really appreciate that call, especially if I was completely unaware of the situation. Even if I knew what was happening deep down I would be grateful that there was someone else out there who cared enough about my child to have the courage to make that call.
So my question to you is What if…? What if…we stopped looking at everyone else’s children as “someone else’s kid,” or “someone else’s responsibility” and instead looked at all kids as “all of our children?”
What if…we all took responsibility for online behaviour affecting “our children” that not only displayed blatant cause for concern but were the early seeds of discontent buried in a gut feeling?
What if…we all were courageous enough to pick up the phone and make that call to the parent we had yet to meet?
What would happen if…all of us, parents, grandparents, aunts, uncles, friends, educators, law enforcement, all of us adults were to link arms, become more aware of comments, photos and social media postings of our nation’s youth and have the courage to speak up?
The lives of our children is becoming increasingly more complicated, innocence is stripped away at earlier and earlier ages and they are much more connected with one another than we can ever imagine.
What if …we as adults become just as interconnected with each other as our children are and we the collective whole were to speak up, speak out and work together to protect our children from inappropriate, concerning and bullying behaviours?
What if…one phone call from one stranger saved one child’s life?
Please, talk with your kids, any kid, about not just the ask.fm website but any and all websites and the danger of social media. Talk with them about internet safety. And let them know we are ALL watching and working to keep them safe.
Stay vigilant and ready to speak up. Be brave!
Sorry to end so abruptly but I need to go because I have a phone call to make to a parent I haven’t met yet…