It was a no-brainer for me to include the confessional question-and-answer app, ask.fm, on the GKIS social media red light list. But then … I was contacted by Catherine Teitelbaum, Chief Trust and Safety Officer for ask.fm. Her generous efforts to inform us about their recent investment of “millions of dollars” and impressive safety updates to bring ask.fm up to industry best practice standards gave me pause. I’ll explain more about recent developments at the end of my article. But despite updated safety implementations, I still have real safety concerns because, in my community, ask.fm remains very popular among middle schoolers and few seem to get out of this cyberbully battleground without long-lasting emotional scars. It’s the perceived anonymity and seductive invitation to ask and answer personal questions on a public forum that make this app risky for impulsive teens. Check out this week’s article so you know what to look out for on your child’s smartphone.
Recently a client shared with me how an ask.fm cyberbully incident triggered her first major depressive episode. She said that she initially really liked answering people’s questions on the app, sharing her opinions and private information. Until one day she woke up to a string of insults about her on the public bulletin board, leaving her hurt and demoralized, questioning constantly who was her friend and who was her enemy. Like other teens, instead of closing her account to escape the misery, she started to compulsively check comments in a futile attempt to feel in control of the situation.
As if that wasn’t difficult enough, shortly after the cyberbully posts a peer posed as her on the app and asked scandalous questions. Again she retreated into confused and frightened silence, too ashamed to tell anybody. She didn’t realize that she was placing herself in harms way by adding the ask.fm app to her Instagram. She eventually deleted it, but the damage was already done. She’s such a beautiful and kind girl it’s mindboggling how somebody would attack her this way and that it would hit her so hard. But then again, the sweet kids who have it all are often targeted and social acceptance is very important to young adolescents. It doesn’t take long to move from optimistic naiveté to defensive fear once cyberbullied. Here is GKIS Sensible Parent’s Guide to ask.fm.
What is ask.fm?
What are ask.fm’s popular features?
- The “home” icon is where you can view those you are following on ask.fm. You can see the questions and comments that they received and answers and responses to the comments and questions.
- Next to the home icon are question marks. Under this icon you can view the questions people have asked you. Some of these questions are also random from ask.fm. These are questions that are generated through the site and you can answer them and post them to your page. So if you are not getting questions from your friends then this can help build your profile. To get these questions you can tap the green circle and more randomized questions from the app itself will pop up.
- Next to the question mark icon is the profile icon where you can see your personal profile. Here you can view your own profile which contains your name, user name, photo, amount of followers, how many questions you’ve answered, amount of likes, and gifts you’ve received.
- There is also the “Ask me a question,” button on every profile. If you click it, it will take you to a page where you can type your comment or question. At the bottom right hand corner there is a check box that when checked allows you post anonymously. Uncheck the box and it will show who asked or commented.
- Next to the profile link, there is a link with shadowed heads. This is where you can see whom you are following.
- The big green circle on this page is to help you add friends by either searching, adding them through other social media apps like Facebook, Twitter, or VK Friends.
- The bell next to the friend’s link is where you can see your notifications, such as answers to questions you asked and likes on your page. The green circle on this page lets you choose what notifications you want to receive whether it is just answers, likes, or all.
What are the privacy options?
- You can set your ask.fm account to not allow any anonymous questions and only receive comments or questions from people you know are asking. To do this you go to settings (this is on your public profile, there’s a settings button that looks like a tool), then you click on privacy, and uncheck the box that says “anonymous questions.”
What are the risks for use?
The fact that people can post anonymously makes it easy for people to post mean comments and/or threats to a person’s page people cannot post anonymously.
Inappropriate content potential:
Just like any other application or social networking site, posts about sex are highly common on ask.fm. People have the tendency to ask other people sex questions- like what they like, who they have been with, etc. Often times, the person being asked questions may end up sharing information that then may be used for cyberbullying. Teens may also inadvertently share personal information about themselves and friends and family members without recognizing long-term consequence.
How long has it been around and how popular is it?
- Ask.fm was developed by two brothers from Latvia in 2010. It grew in popularity starting in Eastern Europe with a policy that seemed to value free speech over safety concerns. As with so many other social media apps, it became popular quickly and the creators may have been caught off guard and slow to understand the dangerous issues presenting and the important safety changes that needed to be made. Fortunately, the it was acquired by Ask.com (a public company that also owns Match.com, About.com, and numerous other online brands) and they have recently implemented significant safety changes. It is especially popular among teens (40% of users are reported to be under 18 years old). Eighteen billion questions and answers were posted in just one year! That, GKISsers, is A LOT of content. Fortunately, most interactions are inane or neutral to positive and sweet. Catherine Teitelbaum elaborated that users love the opportunity to ask questions and express themselves among peers.
What are the protection features?
- Users are safest if they block anonymous answers and avoid the public stream. Using WiFi may save you on data charges.
- Responders can also report content or block another user if they feel threatened or bothered. All you have to do is go to their profile, click the flag button next to the follow button, and then click “block.” Ms. Teitelbaum told me that all reports will be responded to within 24 hours. However, flags are prioritized due to severity and action may be taken within 15 minutes.
- Ask.fm has computer algorithms that search for inappropriate content on all questions (like self harm). If content is flagged, ask.fm staff will review the content and determine action. Answers can be in the form text, photo, or video. As of August, 2015, ask.fm policies have resulted in them taking 40% more action on content than before. Of course, as with all social media apps, teens become increasingly sophisticated working around controls using slang and nuance.
- A gap I’ve identified continues to be that you can be anonymous or not when asking a question. This leaves a lot of opportunity for teens with poor judgement to post unflattering content about themselves and others. Posts are public and not exclusive to a buddy list. In theory, if a predator new a child’s profile name he/she could get into your child’s inbox. That portal to potentially gaining intimate information and/or interacting with you teen pushes ask.fm from yellow to red light in my opinion.
- The GetKidsInternetSafe overwhelming message is that parents must monitor teen social media posts. This is easy with ask.fm in that EVERYTHING a user answers becomes automatically public and searchable.
Even with the recently instituted safety features, public and anonymous posting makes this a GKIS red light app, meaning no use prior to age 18 years. For good reasons, ask.fm has been compared to a virtual bathroom stall, demoralizing and vulgar. Because teens tend to be open and idealistic, parents are encouraged to use GKIS recommendations about monitoring, ongoing dialogue, and teaching important skills to kids about netiquette and judgement. Keep in mind that their immature problem solving region in their brain will often lead them to make mistakes. It’s critical that we make ourselves available for compassionate and informed consult. I totally “get” how compelling this app is to teens as a way to share with others. But from my perspective as a clinical psychologist, I worry a public format is simply too risky for young teens. Of course, it is important for families to make their own decisions based on their opinions and values and the individual traits of their kids. Similar apps to avoid include Whisper and Snapchat. What are your experiences with ask.fm? Have you run across problems, or do you consider this a reasonable app for your kids? Please scroll down and let me know what you think! And if you haven’t yet implemented the GKIS staging tools in your home that immediately result in improved safety, check out the GKIS Screen Safety Toolkit today!
I’m the mom psychologist who will help you GetKidsInternetSafe.
Onward to More Awesome Parenting,
Tracy S. Bennett, Ph.D.
Mom, Clinical Psychologist, CSUCI Adjunct Faculty