Just when you thought you had a handle on your kid's Facebook, Twitter and Instagram accounts comes another social media site that's causing serious concerns.
Ask.fm is the latest to capture the fleeting attention spans of teens and tweens. Users post questions about themselves or others and wait for responses. What makes this site different, though, is the lack of privacy controls, and the fact that those instant responses can be completely anonymous.
A quick scan of the site shows everything from insults over body image, to posts encouraging suicide. Ask.fm has about 65 million users, many of them children. Analysts believe kids have moved to the site because so many parents police their more mainstream accounts.
“It’s a free-for-all,” said Dr. Kimberlee Armstrong, principal at Kenmore Junior High. “I worry about the potential harm students are causing other students.”
Armstrong recently discovered a student was being bullied via Ask.fm at her school and suspended the bully, while sending an email to parents warning them about the site. She encouraged them to talk to their kids about Ask.fm’s dangers.
“We're noticing it's sending kids in a downward spiral,” said Armstrong. “It can affect every aspect of their lives. That’s when we have to intervene.”
Two more cases of cyber bullying are under investigation at the school, with more across the district. Concerns surrounding Ask.fm are hardly confined to a single school district, however. The site has only been around three years, but it’s already linked to five teen suicides.
“A lot of kids suffer in silence,” said Kenmore Jr. High Class Co-President Edward Yang.
Yang knows a girl who was bullied on Ask.fm. He said it's the cruel and relentless piling on by anonymous posters that is so dangerous.
“A lot of people who get bullied this way feel like it's the world against them because they don't know who's bullying them.”
This summer, in the wake of mounting pressure from European authorities, Latvia-based Ask.fm pledged to hire more staff to moderate comments on the site, create a "bullying/harassment" category for reported comments, raise the visibility of a function to opt out of receiving anonymous questions, and limit the number of features unregistered users are able to access.
Two highly recommended sites for parents trying to navigate social media issues for kids are: http://www.connectsafely.org/ and http://www.aplatformforgood.org/