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Teenagers Are Being Bullied to Death on Ask.fm

You know that burn when you drink a can of Coke too fast, but you don’t want to stop because it’s so damn tasty? Or that craving for a cigarette despite your nagging smoker’s cough? There seems to be something inside of us that makes us want what we...
January 22, 2014, 9:09pm

_A screenshot of the latest teenage bully's paradise. _

You know that burn when you drink a can of Coke too fast, but you don’t want to stop because it’s so damn tasty? Or that craving for a cigarette despite your nagging smoker’s cough? There seems to be something inside of us that makes us want what we know isn’t good for us.

Teenagers, bless them, with their pimples and raging hormones, are no different. Maybe even worse, seeing as the few forceful lessons one usually learns in high school (hopefully) make you less of an idiot. There’s an insatiable desire to do things, or know things, even when the pit in your stomach and the voice in your head is telling you that ignorance is probably bliss. Throw that in the stew of high school society, gossiping and backstabbing, and you’ve got a recipe for disaster.

It’s possible that this human desire to know (or be known) is why a website like Latvian-based Ask.fm has sprung up, shooting to popularity with over 50% of its user base being under 18. Launched in 2010, Ask.fm first gained traction in Europe, rising to over 80 million users by 2014. It is now one of the 200 most visited websites in the world. The site is basically the more successful version of Formspring (remember that?). You create a profile and others anonymously post questions on your profile page for you to answer. In short, it takes the whole, “What did that bitch say about me?” and, “Do you think he likes me?” school locker conversation, makes it anonymous, and puts it online.

The anonymity of the site makes it a cyber-asshole’s ultimate playground. We should all know by now that anonymity is often a license to be a shitty person with no repercussions. And while it might give us a sense of empowerment to step outside of our own skin for a moment, when you push the pendulum too far, empowerment becomes bullying. One of the more extreme examples of this can be found within the Ask.fm network, which has been linked to nine different suicides in the past two years, prompting the Telegraph to call it the “suicide website,” and David Cameron, Prime Minister of the UK, to call it, “vile.”

The tragic deaths, all involving children and teenagers between the ages of 12 and 17, began in Ireland. The problem then spread with the site’s popularity, to Britain and North America. Since the deaths are occurring in multiple countries (and the site is hosted in Latvia to boot), it seems nearly impossible that universal laws addressing the matter will be popping up any time soon.

Rebecca Sedwick, the latest victim, was from Florida. On September 10th, 2013, 12-year-old Rebecca jumped to her death from a silo in Lakeland, Florida, after changing her name on social media sites to, “That Dead Girl.” She was actively and mercilessly bullied through Ask.fm as well as other platforms—a forceful reminder of the shit that teens can go through, day in and day out. Bullies between the ages of 12 and 14 wrote on her Ask.fm page, “go kill yourself,” “why are you still alive?” and “you seriously deserve to die.” And because these disgusting messages were sent anonymously, Rebecca was never able to be sure who was saying it.

Rebecca was pulled out of Crystal Lake Elementary, homeschooled, and was later enrolled at Lawton Chiles Middle Academy. The uniting factor through these changes was social media presence that allowed her own personal hell to follow her no matter where she went.

A cursory browsing of the site shows that Ask.fm ranges from benign to intrusive. Every page seems to be host to some derogatory comments and drama, but usually this is balanced out by an equal amount of flattering posts. All pages are public, and most users are between 14 and 16.  It’s easy to see how this kind of thing is adored by the popular set in high school; it’s a never ending stream of, “OMG so beautiful love you <3.” But for those who are not the chosen few, it’s open season for the haters. The kids like Rebecca were more likely to wake up to things like, “nobody even cares about u,” or, “your [sic] fat go lose some weight,” on their page for the world to see, all day every day. And because most social media platforms are linked to each other, shutting down your Ask.fm or Facebook page will just send the bullies to your Twitter notifications or text message inbox.

Many people have jumped on Ask.fm, calling for it to be shut down. Facebook groups, online petitions and parents of victims have joined the fight against the site that they blame for these deaths. After the death of 14-year-old Hannah Smith on August 2, 2013 in Britain, the founders of the site, Mark and Ilja Terebin released an open letter, trying to deflect bad press.

“We would like to reassure all users and parents of users that we are committed to ensuring that our site is a safe environment,” the statement said. “We do not condone bullying of any kind, or any form of unacceptable use of our site.”

“Bullying is an age-old problem that we in no way condone—and while its evolution online is disturbing, it certainly is not unique to our site.” Which in my opinion, reads like pointing the finger at the internet in general and whining, “But guys, they’re doing it too!”

The problem most often brought up with Ask.fm is the lack of safety features; the site originally had no way to report offensive content and encouraged self-moderation over strict rule enforcement. They have since added a button to report content, but maintain that self-moderation is a fair policy.

But McGill associate professor Shaheen Shariff asks, to what extent can you blame a website? While legally the site is not responsible for the suicides of their users, Shaheen who is also the founder of cyberbullying and digital citizenship research website Define the Line, believes that when it comes to moral grounds, “The people who are developing these social media sites really need to reconsider what they’re doing.”

“On one hand, they’re making a lot of money for the people who develop it, but on the other, it’s getting a lot of kids into trouble. And we keep talking about the moral framework and the ethics among youth who are involved in things like this, but what about the moral disengagement among adults, who are so keen on developing this technology and making a lot of money, but really not thinking about the implications on society?”

But far from blaming the website, Shaheen says the responsibility for these events falls squarely on the shoulders of shifting societal trends with which parents and teachers need to keep up in order to keep kids safe.

“The norms of communication have shifted,” says Shaheen, “so there seems to be a higher threshold for insults, jokes and put downs that have become acceptable. I don’t think this has been initiated by teens, I think this has been initiated by society and popular culture.”

When it comes to playing the blame game, Shaheen’s student, lawyer Nima Naimi, who specializes in online bullying, thinks that Ask.fm is as innocuous as Facebook.

“I don’t think the intention of Ask.fm is to be harmful,” he says. “I think their intention was to attract users, and in doing so they’ve used the promise of anonymity, which in turn causes problems. Anonymity allows kids growing up in this environment to be completely uninhibited. They’ll say more, they’ll do things that they wouldn’t normally do, and they’ll do it online instead of in real life.”

The answer, she contends, lies in education for teens and stronger laws against bullying and cyber bullying. In Canada, the government has introduced Bill C-13, purported to address these issues. But C-13 has come across as highly controversial; while it does tackle the issue of sharing intimate images online, a problem that has lead to two Canadian girls committing suicide, it’s got a lot more than cyberbullying stuck in the fine print. The bill would greatly increase the authorities’ surveillance capabilities, while also adding provisions dealing with terrorism and, weirdly enough, stolen cable signals. This makes me wonder if there's a way to address teenage cyberbullying without messing around with our privacy rights. Obviously, it’s going to be difficult to get the Canadian government to formulate laws that will properly address the issue while also dancing on the fine line between protection and invasion of privacy.

From an education standpoint, at least, programs like Shaheen’s Define the Line are aiming to help teens understand the consequences of going too far. But, considering one of the teens accused of being responsible for bullying Rebecca Sedwick has said she, “doesn’t feel that she did anything wrong,” it’s obvious that the message hasn’t sunk in yet. These kids are too young, too naive, and too immersed in a society that even so-called adults don’t properly understand. It’s impossible to force teens to be nice to each other, as every generation slogging their way through high school will testify to; but having to ask them not to encourage each other to kill themselves is both sad and frightening.