Digital Parenting: Spotlight on Ask.FM

Originally written as a letter to parents on November 1, 2013

Raising children in a digital age poses tremendous opportunities  — and some taxing challenges.  This letter addresses one of the challenges.

Every couple of years, a new social media platform pops up that draws in teens en masse  . . . but then quickly exposes its dark underbelly.  This year, that site is Ask.FM.  Here are the basics. Teens create a profile, usually using their real name. They then respond to questions that people submit to them. These questions are often posed anonymously. After they respond, anyone can see and comment on their answers.

Here is what makes Ask.FM a problematic place for our middle school kids to congregate:

1)    Anonymity: Users do not know who is asking them questions unless the askers choose to identify themselves.  Is it a friend? Someone with ill intent? Someone who has created a fake profile to pose as someone else? Any site that allows anonymous comments is worth avoiding, especially in the middle school years.

2)    Privacy: All profiles and content are public for anyone to see. Teens tend to use their real names to create accounts so that friends and contacts can easily find them.  Also, like Twitter and Facebook, AskFM invites you to find and follow your contacts – but unlike these sites you cannot see the identity of those following you.

3)    Cyberbullying: This combination of anonymity and open profiles makes Ask.FM a ripe environment for bullying and harassment.  And that’s exactly what it has become. AskFM has drawn international anger and attention because of the rampant harassment that takes place on the site.

4)    Inappropriate language:  Students often use language in social media that they might not speak aloud. And, as you might imagine, the cloak of anonymity sometimes leads to sexual and otherwise inappropriate lines of questioning.

So what can parents do? AskFM is not the first site to sound alarm bells, nor will it be the last. Here are some important, basic steps that need to become part of our parenting arsenal in the digital age.

  • First and foremost, know what programs your children are using: Look at the apps on your child’s phone/mobile device. Monitor when new apps are downloaded, keep an eye on computer usage/history, and engage children in specific conversations about their social media use. Do not assume your child is not using such sites. If your child does not have a personal mobile device or unsupervised computer access, that does not mean that they are not accessing this, or other, sites on friends’ devices.
  • Talk in practical ways about why this type of site is problematic – from privacy and safety issues, to language concerns, to how it can be abused by users. Use it as a constructive teaching opportunity.
  • Discuss cyber-bulling and what they should do if they witness it. Exchanging words with an anonymous bully in an online forum can simply escalate a situation – which is exactly what the bully intends. Instead, log out and tell a parent. Remind them that some online behavior – such as making threats – is not only wrong, it’s illegal.
  • Finally, remind them that online privacy is an illusion, so they need to be thoughtful about the “digital footprint” they are leaving. The goal is not to avoid social media entirely but to use it wisely.

Our students need help navigating these waters. Social media can be a wonderful tool for connecting and collaborating.  But just as we don’t give our car keys to 12-year-olds and say, “Have fun!” we should not assume that our kids know all of the online “rules of the road.”

P.S. A quick Internet search on “AskFM” will reveal hundreds of recent articles. But here are a few links that I found particularly helpful:

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