Most adults have never heard of the social media site Ask.fm.
It’s huge in Europe, and it has about 65 million users. But half of them are under 18 — meaning that the site’s active user base consists largely of children.
And they’re using it to hound each other to death.
So far, nine teenagers connected to Ask.fm have committed suicide after receiving scores of hateful anonymous messages on the site.
Ask.fm is ostensibly a question and answer site. You sign up, and the system allows you to pose questions that anyone else can answer, or answer questions coming from other users.
It also allows you to post anonymous questions. But the format also lets users engage each other in running battles and arguments, and to gang up on each other.
A user’s account can quickly fill up with a stream of anonymous, hurtful messages that may or may not be coming from people you know. Here’s an example:
Part of the site’s problem is that it’s a social media site with virtually no privacy settings and no real identity controls.
Facebook, by contrast, has made efforts to ensure that a high percentage of its accounts belong to real people — and it deletes the accounts of fake users.
It also has privacy controls. You can lock down your account completely, if need be, shutting out the world.
You can’t do any of that on Ask.fm.
The teens who have have killed themselves after being hounded by other users of Ask.fm are:
- Rebecca Sedwick, 12, who jumped from the top of a cement factory in Florida earlier this month.
- Hannah Smith, 14, of England, who hanged herself in early August.
- Joshua Unsworth, 15, of Engand, who hanged himself in April.
- Anthony Stubbs, 16, of England, was found in a wood near his home in January 2013.
- Daniel Perry, 17, hanged himself in July 2013 after being blackmailed by a person he thought he was having an online relationship with, but was also harassed by Ask.fm users who posted to him messages such as “Kill yourself mate.”
- Jessica Laney, 16, of Florida, who hanged herself on Thanksgiving weekend, 2012.
- Ciara Pugsley, 15, of Ireland, committed suicide in a wood near her home in September 2012.
- Erin Gallagher, 13, of Ireland actually named Ask.fm in he suicide note in October 2012.
- Shannon Gallagher, 15. Erin’s sister, killed herself shortly afterward because she could not cope living without her sister.
Smith was even bullied after her death. Members of the notorious 4chan bulletin board /b/ — a site dedicated to bringing out the worst in anonymous users — even wrote insulting remarks on her Facebook memorial page:
They appear to be aimed at girls who have been the victim of online bullying and need to be cheered up, in a sort of online solidarity. Here’s what they look like:
Ask.fm’s founder, Mark Terebin, has blamed the media for the suicides, and Ask.fm’s own users:
Ask.fm has since beefed up it abuse controls. It will make an abuse reporting button more visible on the site, add a dedicated category for abusive behaviour, and restrict the way anonymous users can use use the site.
The changes will be fully implemented by spring 2014, the company says:
In the light of recent events highlighting the impact online bullying and harassment can have on young people, we engaged professional advisors to conduct a full and independent audit of our site and its safety features.
This audit has now been completed. Based on the findings and the recommendations that were made, we can today announce our commitment to making changes to Ask.fm’s existing policies in three core areas: reporting and moderation, registration and corporate visibility.
Read the company’s full statement here.
If you or someone you know may be at risk of suicide contact Lifeline on 13 11 14.