Ask.fm, a worldwide social networking site where you say anything to anyone, has over 60 million users, 13.2 million of whom visit the site daily, making it one of the fastest-growing social networks in the world. But this success has a dark side; Ask.fm has become an epicenter for teenage cyber-bullying and has already been linked to at least six teenage suicides. Those suicides are behind multiple online petitions, each with thousands of signatures, and articles in The Guardian and The Telegraph about how to make the site safer — or even shut it down.
The calls for a safer social network site aren't unique: see, for example, Twitter's problem with rape threats and the company's subsequent announcement of a "Report Abuse" button. But the two social networks are very different.
Ask.fm actually has a lot more in common (read: it's almost the same) with Formspring, a network that allowed people to "ask" (anonymously, if they wanted) anyone on the site anything (Formspring is what Carlos Danger, a.k.a. Anthony Weiner, used to flirt with women not named Huma Abedin). But "asking" can devolve into threats to "drink bleach" or "go get cancer," which The Telegraph reports are the kind of messages that 14-year-old Hannah Smith from Leicestershire got before she was found hanged on Friday.
Pretty gross, right? British papers are reporting that Smith's is the fifth teenage death in the nation since last September linked to the site. And The Guardian's John Henley says that the site is believed to be connected to a suicide of an American teen late last year: "Friends of Jessica Laney, a Florida teenager who hanged herself in her bedroom last December, have said they are convinced constant anonymous bullying on Ask.fm pushed her to it," he writes.
These suicides are tragic, no doubt, and they represent only a small number of the thousands of teens out there who may be getting threats. After all, Ask.fm reportedly gains almost 300,000 new users daily and is available in 150 countries, including the United States.
Unfortunately, bullying seems unstoppable on social media platforms. So what's Ask.fm doing about it? Obviously, there are calls to shut the site down. But that won't really stop teens from finding a new way to bully each other (they have figured out a way with each new form of social media). To be fair, Ask.fm isn't generating these threats; its users are.
Moderating what gets on the site may be a more sensible route. For example, the charity BeatBullying is suggesting options like "clear information and advice on-screen for users who are being bullied, as well as a single, prominent and easy-to-use 'panic button'," Henley writes. Those options, however, would be pricey and require manpower. The owners, Russian brothers Ilya and Mark Terebin, are said to be making over $6 million each—probably not enough to cover that type of monitoring.
For what it's worth, Ask.fm said in statement that each report of abuse is read:
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.
Well, "immediately" isn't apparently happening quickly enough.