Aug. 15, 2013 at 4:55 PM ET
Popular with kids, and — until recently — obscure to many adults, Ask.fm is a Latvia-based social networking site where members interact by inviting others to ask anonymous questions.
Though the site has more than 65 million members who interact in more than 30 languages, it wasn’t until Monday that Ask.fm made headlines in the United States. That’s when kidnapping victim Hannah Anderson, barely 48 hours after her rescue, logged on using the name “Hannahbanana722." Her identity later confirmed by her grandparents, Anderson openly answered personal questions about her ordeal, posted by anonymous strangers. She also posted several smiling selfies — cellphone self-portraits — as well.
Yet for all the catharsis and connection Ask.fm may have provided Anderson, as well as youth who are suffering lesser traumas of adolescence, it's also one more virtual hangout where kids go to torment each other.
Ask.fm, like Facebook and other social networks, limits membership to ages 13 and older. And just like Facebook, there are likely kids who lie about their age to join. Unlike Facebook, Twitter or even Tumblr, however, parents are likely not to know about Ask.fm, let alone what their kids are doing there. Teens are sharing more than ever on social media, according to a 2013 Pew study. And they prefer to do it anonymously, and on social media sites not shared by adults.
Just a few weeks before Anderson’s action confounded Americans born before social media, Ask.fm made very different headlines in the United Kingdom, when Prime Minister David Cameron called for the boycott of such “vile” websites: Cyberbullying at Ask.fm was linked to the suicides of four British teenagers.
"The people that operate these websites have got to step up to the plate and show some responsibility,” Cameron told Sky News, after parenting groups criticized both the government and Ask.fm for alleged abuses happening on the site, and asked the government to shut it down.
In an August statement following the death of Hannah Smith,14, the fourth UK suicide connected to the site, a spokesperson said in a statement:
Ask.fm actively encourages our users and their parents to report any incidences of bullying, either by using the in-site reporting button or via our contact page. All reports are read by our team of moderators to ensure that genuine concerns are heard and acted upon immediately and we always remove content reported to us that violates our terms of service.
Regardless, the UK government doesn't have a lot of control over a site based in Latvia, and some question whether shutting down the site is the answer.
Following Cameron’s condemnation, Independent columnist Yomi Adegoke made a point many adults forget in their anger and grief:
If we take down Ask.fm, do we really take down cyberbullying as a whole, the same cyberbullying that took place before (and will surely take place after) its existence? People trolled on MySpace, bullied on MSN and now victimize on Twitter and Facebook; when children want to bully, they will bully anywhere and by any means. Until we teach them the serious effects of their behavior, prohibiting Ask.fm will merely send a generation of cyberbullies in their droves to another site.
Indeed, before Ask.fm launched in 2010, kids hid from their parents on its anonymous Q&A predecessor, Formspring. Best known to grownups as the online forum where Anthony Weiner exchanged racy questions with a 22-year-old woman, Formspring was connected to the 2011 suicides of two teens who were allegedly bullied on the site.
The year before, it was Stickygossip, another obscure-with-adults teen forum. If you have even a passing acquaintance with Internet memes, you may remember the 2010 torment of 11-year-old microcelebrity “Jessi Slaughter” (not her real name). Her personal videos brought the online and offline harassment fomented on a less-obscure forum, 4chan, which led to the viral video of her father threatening his daughter's Internet tormentors that “consequences will never be the same.”
As Adegoke wrote in the Independent, shutting down one potential host of teen bullying, will "send a generation of cyberbullies in their droves to another site."
Whether on the Internet or in real life, kids will always find places to connect in places where adult eyes can't find them.
Perhaps the best solution comes from UK parliament member Diane Abbott. Following PM Cameron’s condemnation of Ask.fm, she emphasized the need “to give greater importance to teaching children about relationships," she explained to the Guardian. "This would mean that children would not only learn about how to cope with sexting and pornography but they would also discuss how to relate to each other on the Internet."