Everything a Parent Needs to Know About ASK.FM
In August of 2013 a 14-year-old girl in Britain, Hannah Smith, committed suicide after receiving abusive messages on a smartphone app. In response, British Prime Minister David Cameron said that parents and teens should boycott apps and websites that have fostered cyberbullying, while a campaign group known as Beatbullying asked the developers of this app to start taking children’s safety seriously.
The app in question? Ask.fm.
What Exactly Is Ask.fm?
Ask.fm is a smartphone app doubling as both a social network and question and answer platform. On a typical day, questions on Ask.fm might include: “What did you forget to do today?”, “Have you walked the dog?”, or “Are you married?” Some of the questions can be inspirational and engage users in worthwhile conversation about social and political issues, but many of the questions on the site end up being trivial and—worse—inappropriate. Questions about whether or not a person is attractive are common on Ask.fm and often target teens and young adults, who like the app’s anonymous interface.
That’s right: anonymous. That word alone indicates that this isn’t a good app for teens. Ask.fm’s users can ask questions anonymously, answer questions anonymously, and lurk on another user’s profile anonymously, if they choose, which means that a 35-year-old from New York or Nevada could easily have seen Hannah Smith’s questions on Ask.fm. It’s possible that she was bullied by total strangers. More likely, though, she was bullied by her friends. Many schools have boycotted or outright banned Ask.fm because it’s so popular among teens and high school students.
The Numbers Behind Ask.fm
Ask.fm was founded in 2010 in Latvia and is now headquarted in Dublin, Ireland
Over 150 million unique users
In a single month Ask.fm receives upwards of 80 million unique page visits
30% of Ask.fm users are between the ages of 18 and 24 (40% of users are between 35 and 54)
16% of users live in Russia
13 is the minimum age to sign up for an Ask.fm account (but there’s no age verification)
What You’ll Find On Ask.fm
In addition to being a question and answer platform, Ask.fm doubles as a global social network, connecting to sites like Facebook, Twitter, and Tumblr. Users can sign in using their accounts on other sites and link their Ask.fm profiles to those accounts. That means as much time is spent on a user’s profile as with their questions. Not only can anyone see a user’s personal information, but they can also see what questions they’ve asked and answered and how they’ve responded to other users.
Unsurprisingly, Ask.fm has become a hotbed for bullying, and that’s a lot of what you find on the app and website: mean questions about a person’s weight, height, and physical appearance; nasty comments inciting users to hurt themselves and wishing they were dead; and messages like those Hannah Smith received that lead to low self-esteem, depression, and suicidal thoughts. Users can hide behind their anonymity when they make these hateful comments, and there’s no way for the victim to know who’s targeting them. It could be a stranger. It could also be someone they know from school.
How Anonymous Is It Really?
In fact Ask.fm isn’t that anonymous, except when it’s used by cyberbullies. Many users link their accounts to Facebook, Twitter, and other social networking sites and in so doing allow Ask.fm’s users access to their personal information and their online community. It’s easy for cyberbullies and predators to identify Ask.fm users and initiate contact with them without their victims being able to identify them in return. Questions and answers can still be posted anonymously, but all of the content on a person’s profile becomes public.
Dangers Teens Face on Ask.fm
Cyberbullying is by far the largest problem on Ask.fm. It’s question and answer format allows its cyberbullies to target specific users and pose mean-spirited questions about them to Ask.fm’s big social network. In addition, predators can find teens on Ask.fm, using their profiles and personal information to establish contact and build relationships with potential victims.
What’s worse, there’s no recourse for any of this bullying or predatory behavior. Users can block people who’ve been harassing them, but when they do, they have to provide a reason (which can be embarrassing) and the person they block will still be able to see their profile, even if they can’t actually contact them on the app or website. In recent years, Ask.fm has stepped up their safety protocols and focused their attention of the problem of cyberbullying, but haven’t done enough to make this app truly safe for teens.
To protect your teen and your peace of mind, it’s best not to allow teens to install Ask.fm on their smartphones or sign up for an account on their computers. Ask.fm augments the negative aspects of social networking without providing any benefits to its users, except an outlet for their cruelty. Avoid Ask.fm at all costs.