The death of a 14-year-old girl who killed herself after being abused online has been described as a “true tragedy” by the website on which she was bullied. Hannah Smith died on Friday in Lutterworth in Leicestershire after being “cyber-bullied” on the question-and-answer website Ask.fm.
Is your child using the sinister website that pits friend against friend? Last month a 12-year-old girl killed herself after being hounded on it. No wonder mothers want it banned…
Schools across the country are sending out letters advising pupils not to use Ask.fm
Site lets anyone see details of boys and girls as young as 10, then post comments or questions
There is no way to report offensive comments
Has become linked to a number of recent teen suicides (6)
Many of you may have heard about the website Ask.fm. Your child or grandchild is probably using it right NOW. Well it is time you knew what it involves and the very real dangers it poses !
The concept is simple: you sign up and then people can ask, or you can ask people, any question anonymously. The website is similar to Twitter where users can follow each other. However, unlike Twitter, a user can never find out who is following them and can only know the overall number of followers he/she has.
This may sound like a fun idea but there have been increasing reports of cyber bullying and issues surrounding grooming of young people, self-harm and suicide on the site. There is no age limit to who can sign up, so any young person is able to have an account. The website lets anyone see the names, photographs and personal details of boys and girls as young as 10, then post comments or questions on their profile pages that range from insults to sexual advances and threats of violence.
Pupils and parents are being warned by head teachers about the dangers of a rapidly growing social networking site that puts teenagers at risk of vicious anonymous abuse.
Schools across the country are sending out letters advising pupils not to use Ask.fm, which has more than 40 million users around the world and is a haven for bullies and linked to at least 6 suicides.
The website lets anyone see the names, photographs and personal details of boys and girls as young as 10, then post comments or questions on their profile pages that range from insults to sexual advances and threats of violence.
Unlike other services such as Facebook and Twitter, there is no way to report offensive comments, increase privacy settings or find out who is behind anonymous bullying.
The website is based in Latvia, making it even more difficult for police to take action, while its owners dismiss any problems with the site as the result of British and Irish children being more cruel than those from other countries.
Ask.fm has become associated with some of the worst forms of cyberbullying and has been linked to a number of recent teen suicides in Ireland and the US.
‘It is almost a stalker’s paradise. In cases like this young people need protection from those who exploit internet anonymity to intimidate, isolate and bully.’
Richard Piggin, deputy chief executive of the charity BeatBullying, said: ‘The tool that enables it to be anonymous can facilitate young people to say things that they might not say face to face or if their names were attached to it. So it releases their inhibitions, which can be very dangerous.
‘Sites like Ask.fm lack even the most basic child safety mechanisms or reporting protocols. They are of huge concern to us and the young people we work with.’
Founder Mark Terebin said: ‘We only have this situation in Ireland and the UK most of all. It seems that children are more cruel in these countries.’
When she looked at her teenage daughter’s laptop, it was almost impossible for Caroline to believe that the vicious words on the screen had been written about her child.
‘Slut’ and ‘anorexic freak’ were some of the choice words and phrases which had been posted on 13-year-old Laura’s social networking page. Another message, posted in response to a photograph of Laura at a friend’s birthday party, spat the vitriol: ‘Put some clothes on. I don’t wanna see your slutty face on my computer.’ The website, as 40-year-old Caroline learned, was ask.fm — a notorious question-and-answer social networking site that has enjoyed an explosion in popularity among young British teenagers in the past year.
Most of the victims actually know their tormentors — usually disgruntled classmates who are often ‘friends’ with their victims on other sites such as Facebook but reveal a more sinister side when on ask.fm, where they have the option to hide their identity. Bullied youngsters are left agonised, not knowing which of their friends has turned against them.
The site also allows users to put up video answers, meaning their identities can be revealed. For the past few months, children’s charities, child safety experts and education chiefs have been warning about the dangers of the site. But the suicide last week of Joshua Unsworth has made their concerns more urgent than ever.
Joshua, 15, took his own life after months of abusive messages on ask.fm. The schoolboy was found hanged in the garden of his family’s stone-built converted farmhouse in a Lancashire village.
The vicious messages posted on his page included: ‘You really are a freak’, ‘no one likes you’ and ‘you deserve sick things to happen to you’.
In all, the site has now been linked to six suicides.
For company director Caroline, seeing her privately educated daughter’s ask.fm site was a shocking wake-up call. ‘I couldn’t believe what I was seeing,’ she says.
‘The fact that somebody had launched such a disgusting attack on my lovely daughter felt like a violation I had been unable to protect her from.’ Like many parents, Caroline was unaware of ask.fm until she accidentally stumbled on Laura’s account, linked to her Facebook page. ‘I like to keep tabs on Laura’s online activity,’ Caroline says. ‘I’m a friend of hers on Facebook but this isn’t always enough to see everything going on. She accuses me of stalking her online, but it’s becoming harder to stay on top of it all … I immediately told her to close the account down and have nothing more to do with it.’
Laura set up her ask.fm account last November. ‘Everyone was doing it and I thought it would be fun,’ she says. ‘First of all, the questions were harmless things like “who are your best friends?” but it got out of hand after my friend’s birthday party.
‘My friends and I dressed up — I was wearing hotpants, a red top and trainers — and my friend posted pictures of us on Facebook. People said we looked like sluts and prostitutes. The comments were targeted at all of us, but I’m quite skinny so people called me anorexic. It was horrible.’
Her mother says: ‘I think it is despicable that this site holds no responsibility for the harm it is causing.’ Caroline also admits that the worst part for Laura was not knowing who had made the comments about her, but being aware they must have come from her inner circle. ‘It was very isolating for her.’
That was certainly the experience of Joshua Unsworth. The anonymous messages posted on his page are beyond belief. They called him a ‘f****** n**head’ and added: ‘Your (sic) just like a dog. No one likes you. Honestly no one cares for you even your parents don’t want you, there (sic) gunna put you in care.’
a mother who caught her 14-year-old daughter taking an overdose after being bullied on ask.fm. In one of the final messages sent to her before her suicide attempt last October, one tormentor wrote: ‘Dribk (sic) bleach, drownd (sic) your self, hang your self, cut your throat open, nobody wats (sic) you hear (sic) at all, just die.’ If that message wasn’t clear, another followed: ‘Please die.’
Anyone still in any doubt about the widespread grief that ask.fm is causing a generation of British children need only pay a visit to YouTube. There, hundreds of British teenagers have posted video clips of themselves bewailing how they have received ‘anonymous hate’ via the website.
Pouring her heart out on camera last month, one desperate girl says: ‘Within two hours, I had people telling me to kill myself… Someone needs to say something. ’
The brainchild of Russian internet entrepreneurs, and brothers, Ilya and Mark Terebin, ask.fm is run from the company’s headquarters in Latvia’s capital Riga, where they grew up. Modelling itself on the U.S. question-and-answer website ‘Formspring’, the site rapidly expanded. Last November, it had 21 million users. This figure has nearly doubled in the past five months and the site is available in 31 languages. The website makes its money from advertising — as well as allowing companies to pay for questions which can be targeted at users.
Advertising revenue is around £16,000 a day and most of the adverts are targeted depending on the user’s age and location. Companies which feature on ask.fm’s pages include industry giants such as Nespresso and clothing company Isme.
Children must be at least 13 years old to sign up to the site, but there’s nothing to stop them lying when registering — which takes seconds. The site asks only for a name, email address and date of birth. Most sign up via their Facebook pages, automatically notifying their ‘Facebook friends’ that they’ve joined ask.fm.
Governed by Latvian law, the site’s ‘terms of service’ include an extensive disclaimer which explains: ‘The ask.fm service allows for anonymous content which ask.fm does not monitor. You agree to use the ask.fm service at your own risk and that ask.fm shall have no liability to you for content that you may find objectionable, obscene or in poor taste.’ Even before Joshua’s suicide, the controversial site had been linked to the deaths of five teenagers worldwide, including three from Ireland — two of whom were sisters.
In September last year Ciara Pugsley, 15, from County Leitrim, Ireland, was found dead near her home in Killargue, Co. Leitrim after reportedly suffering abuse on ask.fm. Her father Jonathan described the website as ‘extremely sinister’.
Erin Gallagher, 13, after alleged bullying on ask.fm, took her own life in October last year. Tragically, just two months later, her grief-stricken sister Shannon, 15, also killed herself; although there is no suggestion she was targeted on the website.
To date, the Terebins, the sons of a wealthy former Soviet Red Army serviceman, have refused to take responsibility for the kind of vicious behaviour that has become prevalent on their own cyber doorstep.
The pair, who both graduated from the Riga International School of Economics and Business Administration, began their careers setting up a furniture business, but swiftly realised that the internet boom offered them a more lucrative path.Disturbingly, both spout homophobic and pro-Stalinist views on their ask.fm page. In response to the question, ‘how do you feel about gays’, Mark, 27, replies in Russian: ‘These fools are waiting for tolerance. There’s no point in waiting’.
Meanwhile, his 34-year-old brother, who calls for a return to article 121 of Stalin’s criminal code which outlawed homosexuality, writes: ‘I wouldn’t lie next to a homosexual, even in the morgue.’
The brothers ignored requests for an interview with the Mail this week but in a statement Mark Terebin gave to Ireland’s broadcaster RTE last October, he appeared to suggest that British children were to blame for the recent tragedies.
‘We have only this situation in Ireland and the UK most of all,’ he said. ‘It seems that children are more cruel in these countries.’
A month later, when one of his own ask.fm users asked why he wouldn’t comment on the suicides, he wrote back: ‘It’s not about the site, the problem is about education, about moral values that were devaluated lately. Ask.fm is just a tool which helps people to communicate with each other, same as any other social network, same as phone, same as piece of paper and pen.’
British anti-bullying agencies take a different stance. ‘Young people are encouraged to say things they would not say face-to-face or if they were named. Until more is done to prevent this, we should be concerned by their use,’ says Emma-Jane Cross, founder and chief executive of the charity BeatBullying.
While refusing to admit their site presents a threat to youngsters, in recent weeks, ask.fm has introduced a ‘report’ button, enabling users to notify the site of abuse they receive. But they’ve refused to disable the ‘anonymous’ function which experts say lies at the heart of the problem.
It seems that if the site is not prepared to protect the children that use it, then parents must be extra vigilant to keep them safe.
But in a world where technology evolves at breakneck speed, monitoring teenagers’ activity on social networking sites is no easy task.
As Laura’s mother Caroline puts it: ‘Before it was the playground, then email, now it’s becoming almost impossible to protect our children from abuse because it creeps into their lives from a barrage of social media. You think, when your daughter is 13, you won’t have to watch her like a hawk anymore. But it’s a more full time job now than ever.’
Whilst having fun online can be a great way to chill out and have fun, being careful about what you do can make sure nothing bad ever happens. Follow these top tips to make sure you don’t get find yourself in trouble:
WHAT INFORMATION SHOULDN’T I PUT ONLINE?
Don’t give out any personal information online as people may use it to contact you when you don’t want them to.
Unless you have an adult’s permission, never give out:
Your real name or your friends’ names
Your home, school or email address
Your home or mobile phone numbers
A photo of yourself
Bank or credit card details
CAN I MEET PEOPLE I MEET ONLINE IN PERSON?
Don’t arrange to meet anyone you’ve met online, no matter how well you think you know them, without your parent or carer’s permission.
Meeting someone you’ve only been in touch with online can be dangerous as they may have been lying about who they are.
Even if you get permission, make sure you have an adult with you when you meet for the first time.
WHAT IS PRIVATE CHAT?
This is using part of a chatroom where other people can’t see what you’re saying.
Never agree to a private chat with someone unless you already know them face-to-face, in real life.
You can also have private chats on “instant messaging”.
Instant messaging — sometimes shortened to IM — is a computer program that allows you to send messages that other users receive straight away.
It is best only to do this with people you already know in real life.
If you get to a chatroom through instant messaging, remember to follow the same safety rules you would use if you were chatting anywhere else.
WHAT ABOUT SOCIAL NETWORKING SITES?
Social networking sites are places where you can keep in touch with friends and let people know what you’re up to. Popular ones include Facebook, Twitter and MySpace.
You normally have to be at least 13 to register on them, and even then you often need your parents’ permission.
They can be dangerous though because you must be careful not to post personal information about yourself.
Also, you must keep your password to yourself, or else people could write nasty things pretending to be you.