Ask.fm and Anonymity

Ask.fm

Amongst the other shocking social network stories recently, we find an even more tragic case of teenager Hannah Smith committing suicide possibly as a result of online bullying on Ask.fm.

Ask.fm is a social networking site with around 60 million users, half of which are under the age of 18.

Based in Latvia, Ask.fm offers a website and app where users can create a profile and then invite friends and strangers to ask them questions. Those questions can be anonymous if the account holder allows it, which is where we come to the problem.

Spend a short amount of time on Ask.fm and you’ll soon find it’s a bit of an unsolicited playground – a riotous, flirty and sometimes scary place where teens can be teens without the prying eyes of parents or teachers.

But last Friday Hannah Smith, aged 14, was found by her sister Jo, 16, hanged in her bedroom in Lutterworth, Leicestershire.

Her father, Dave, said she had been savagely bullied on the website.

"I have just seen the abuse my daughter got from people on Ask.fm and the fact that these people can be anonymous is wrong," Smith, 45, wrote on his Facebook page.

After comments like "cow", "fat slag" "ugly f**k" and "self harmin ****" were found on her page, I wonder – where does the blame lie for Hannah’s tragic death?

Hannah’s parents are pushing for a manslaughter case against Ask.fm, so does the blame lie on the website then?

After all, they are the ones providing this service to users. Should more be done to moderate comments and expel users who are reported as being malicious? Moderating comments on a site that recorded 13bn page views from 180m unique visitors in April, and is currently adding 200,000 new members a day would be a grand undertaking for any company. Well, if they can’t moderate comments, should Ask.fm be allowing anonymous questions at all?

Parents and critics alike are calling for tighter restrictions, and even calling for the government to ban Ask.fm on a change.org petition.

But couldn’t it be argued that they are just providing a service for users and it’s up to the users to decide how they’re going to use it? I’m sure for the most part the users on Ask.fm are not bullying each other, but using it like respectable human beings. So this throws the blame over to society.

Don’t blame a tool

Several Ask.fm co-founders have argued that the "negativity" on Ask.fm is merely a reflection of society’s failings, and a good indicator for the lack of proper Internet education.

Mark Terebin, co-founder, said: "It is necessary to go deeper to find a root of a problem.

"Ask.fm is just a tool that helps people to communicate, same as any other social network, same as a phone, same as piece of paper and pen. Don’t blame a tool."

Does he have a point?

We’ve been seeing for years the dark and hateful comments generated on sites such as Youtube and 4Chan. Humanity’s most saddening side most often appears behind an anonymous internet handle, and it’s been like that since the start of the web. Is Ask.fm a mirror held to society or just a few people spoiling it for the many?

Parent responsibility?

A lack of Internet education can then befall the blame onto parents. With today’s children having more and more access to mobile devices and the Internet whenever they want, should parents be taking a more responsible role in what their children are doing online.

Safeguards are in place for parents to use, and it must be hard to try and intervene in your child’s online life without causing stress on the relationship but after seeing some of the comments on Ask.fm, I can’t think of anyone who would not want to take their child out of that situation.

"It’s just bullies!" critics say. "It was the same back in my day, back in the playground!"

Yes, but your playground had supervision, and the bullies couldn’t get you at home. It’s now a different world and people need to start taking responsibility whether that be websites, schools, the government or parents.

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