Earlier this month, 12 year old Rebecca Ann Sedwick of Lakeland, FL., died by suicide after a year of receiving abusive messages on the internet. Rebecca had been constantly bombarded with malicious messages by roughly 15 girls through her Ask.fm account along with other social media sites, telling her to kill herself. Rebecca eventually complied with the anonymous messages, went to the roof of an abandoned building and jumped.
Ask.FM is the most recent iteration of the now-defunct bathroom wall or Formspring. Hailing from Latvia, Ask.FM allows users to receive questions from both fellow account holders and anonymous users. The idea is to allow people to ask the questions they could never dream of asking in person, or to say things that both should and should not be said.
Unfortunately, Ask.FM’s promise of anonymity creates opportunities for bullying. Criticized for the superfluous amount of abuse that happens on their site, Ask.FM has been accused of negatively contributing to teenage depression.
With anonymity comes responsibility. An anonymous message can penetrate much deeper than many people realize. Without a name attached to the message, people often perceive it as their peers’ general consensus. Instead of belonging to one person, the idea belongs to the majority. These misconceptions, while untrue, can be devastating to one’s self-worth.
Palo Alto is no more immune to the allure of brutal honesty. The Ask.FM account Palo Alto Hate accepted many submissions before finally being suspended in the last couple of months. Posts would range from hurtful but witty to just abusive. The purpose of the page was to deal exclusively with negative opinions of others. The creators thought they vindicated their behavior by insisting cyberbullying was a myth. Toward the end, the page itself received hate in response to submitting harsh comments about the people they discussed.
The creation of these pages begs the question: is it necessary to have more supervision in a youth-oriented internet community?
There is now a growing technological gap between parent and child. It’s a new phenomenon, where parents are always one step behind their kids; by the time parents and other adults find out about one site, their children are already using another. This gap can make it difficult for parents to step in when bullying occurs. It also can make it hard for parents to empathize, many times because they are so detatched or oblivious that they fail to understand what the true sources of the bullying are, or how it all works.
Public backlash, especially from parents, resulted in the recent addition of the “report” button. It allows any user or viewer to report bullying, spam, violence or pornographic content. In theory, problem solved. In reality, the report button’s entire premise is flawed. It contradicts the whole point of the site, which is to enable people to be extremely honest. Moreover, no voluntary reporting system can make a dent in the large amount of hateful messages. If they report it, they’re being disingenuous to the spirit of the site and breaking their promise to answer any question. If they don’t report it, they leave themselves open for endless abuse and questions worthy of report online.
Although Ask.FM allows all forms of honesty, one that is often neglected is positive reinforcement. People are quick to forget that Ask.FM also provides an opportunity to make someone’s day. It’s so easy to deposit hate in the ask box and to ignore that the page wasn’t created with the intent to harm; it was to allow peers to ask those burning questions that we are too afraid to voice out loud. Next time you’re about to drop hate in someone else’s ask box, think about what the possible effects could be for them. Instead, tell them they have a brilliant mind, or that they can always make you laugh. We just have to remember the fact that we have power to do so much good, and we need to use it.