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Ask.fm: Social Network Spreads Among Teens, Blamed For Bullying And Suicides

Founded in Latvia, Ask.fm is exploding around the world. Its users communicate with questions and answers. Here's one: How cruel can young people be with each other?

These kids are safe. Are yours?
These kids are safe. Are yours?
Laure Belot

PARIS - “You’re small.” Samy is 14 years old, 157 centimeters tall, and admits that he didn’t enjoy reading this anonymous message on his computer. But it was nothing compared to the next message, visible to all on the Internet: “Go f*ck your mother.”

Still, it will take more to convince this junior high school student from the suburbs of Paris to unsubscribe from Ask.fm, the website where these (and other) insults took place.

Though Facebook and Twitter still dominate, this younger social network – the most *in* underground address of the moment – is hugely popular in certain countries: 1.3 million French Internet users, half of them under the age of 17. In France, it is the third website in terms of time spent (45 minutes), behind Twitter (one hour) and Facebook (five hours). Samy spends “half an hour per day” on the site, “But we don’t really talk about it at school,” he adds.

The site was launched in Riga, Latvia, in 2010 and its concept couldn’t be simpler: “People mostly communicate with each other by asking and answering questions,” says cofounder Mark Terebin. Even if the minimum age to register is 13, many primary and middle schools students – little brothers and sisters of the Facebook generation – lie about their age to join the network.

Like many of his classmates, Samy learned about the site on Facebook. “I liked the concept. You can see what people think of you.” And so Samy signed up in Dec. 2012 and quickly shared the news with his 300 Facebook friends, hoping they would join him.

This method of “viral recruitment” is the key to the success of Ask.fm, which is the 91st most popular website in the world according to comScore. The network – not to be confused with the Ask.com search engine – has seen its members multiply from five million in April 2012 to more than 53 million today.

Ask.fm is now the 10th social network in the world after four Americans (Facebook, Twitter, Linkedin, Tumblr), three Chinese (QQ, Weibo, Pengyou) and two Russians (VK, Odnoklassniki). In Brazil and Argentina, almost one in five Internet users is an Ask.fm regular. The fact that social networks are now accepted in most families has helped them spread faster. The youth are deserting Facebook, looking for other places to get online thrills, and Twitter seems too complicated for them.

Its international success has revealed a dark side: On Sept. 9, 2012, the Bulgarian Safer Internet Helpline received 900 calls about an 11 year offering to show herself naked and a 5 year old boy saying he would comply to any request. “The website didn’t give us the IP address of the childrens’ computers,” says Gueorgui Apostolov from the helpline, “but on Sept. 10, the Bulgarian Police Cybercrim Unit arrested the 29 year old predator.”

“Be trashy to get noticed”

Even if most messages are about music and flirting and friendship, “each member’s number of answers is added and a ranking is published,” says Pascale Garreau from the French Internet sans craintes (“Internet without worries”) program. “You have to be trashy to get noticed and generate responses. It’s very tempting.”

In September and Oct. 2012, two 13 and 15 year old Irish girls committed suicide. “They were members of the network and had been insulted but they were also victims of bullying at school,” said Laura Higgins, from British Safer Internet Helpline.

Two months later, one of the girls’ older sisters committed suicide as well. “What happened is a true tragedy and we give our deepest condolences to the victim's family and relatives,” wrote Mark Terebin on his website. “Ask.fm is just a tool which helps people to communicate with each other. Don't blame a tool, but try to make changes… start with yourself... be more polite, more kind, more tolerant of others… cultivate these values in families, in schools.”

Terebin’s statement was not well received in Britain, where “five to six cases of teen suicides were reported since September due to cyberbullying on this website, even if there is no clear incriminating evidence,” observed Higgins.

The problem with Ask.fm is that its users are not protected. By default, each new member agrees to receive anonymous messages, “a setting that not many youths know how to change,” explains Garreau. It is those anonymous messages that are the most insulting, and what’s worse, they are visible to everyone on the Internet, because each post is publicly accessible, visible to all.

There are only 50 external moderators to control the content while 30 million questions and just as many answers are posted every day. What’s more, terms of use are only available in English, whereas the website is available in 32 languages.

In the UK, Laura Higgins notes that Ask.fm has a better reaction time and “took only 15 minutes, to remove the insults a young girl received after the recent death of her father.” Still, she admits that her pleas to make the site “turn off the default option for allowing anonymous messages,” yielded nothing.

For most teenagers, “Ask is a place where they can rant and rave,” says psychiatrist Patrice Huerre. But, “for the most fragile of them, the 10 to 15% of teenagers who are not able to distance themselves from the insults, this online bullying can be devastating.”

Recently, the website has promised to enforce stricter moderation in the future.

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