Ask.fm's cyberbullying problem isn't new and may not be what it seems

Ask.fm has been heavily criticised for not having more mechanisms in place to deal with abusive messages left for vulnerable people on their platform. However, previous social networking sites have had similar experiences, and investigations revealed that not everything is as cut and dry in the world of what one researcher calls, "digital self-harming".

The suicide of 14 year old Hannah Smith has critics of social networking site ask.fm demanding answers and action about the lack of moderation and oversight in protecting vulnerable people from the scourge of cyber-bullying. Demands have ranged from shutting the site down entirely to revealing the names of the trolls who sent young Hannah abusive messages. While ask.fm will be considering its strategic move, advertisers have already begun to pull their ad spend from the site. The ask.fm story is just one in a long line of stories involving social networking sites dealing with bullying on their platform. However, the abusive nature of the troll in some cases is not as clear cut as it may seem. Last year, a growing number of tweens and teens, mainly girls, were said to be posting videos on YouTube asking commenters to provide opinions on their looks. Videos were uploaded and commentators asked to whether or not the girls were ugly or pretty.A social networking site called formspring.me was created on the same premise as ask.fm: Ask a question and get an anonymous answer. The site’s creators were surprised at the viral nature of teen adoption of the site. After news about trolling on Formspring hit the headlines, its founders took extra precautions to ensure safety including letters sent home to parents by school principals. The site eventually folded. Such is the precarious nature of social networking. If users feel threatened or burdened by parental type oversight, they can just move on to the next ‘hot’ site.

Formspring was a predecessor to under attack site ask.fm

In the aftermath of the Formspring site trolling incident, the site operators began to make inquiries to the type of abuse taking place on the site. They made an alarming discovery. Some of the teens suffering the abuse were actually leaving the messages anonymously on their own posted questions. In other words, there are teens out there that are self-harassing by “anonymously” writing mean questions to themselves and then publicly answering them.Researcher Danah Boyd said that “what happened on Formspring– and, likely, other sites where people can anonymously or pseudonymously post comments – can be understood as a form of "digital self-harm". These teens are attacking themselves in a public forum while making it look like they’re being attacked by someone else. This is a very effective mechanism for getting attention.” Boyd identifies three reasons that teens would commit ‘digital self-harm’: “1. it’s a cry for help. Teens want their parents (and perhaps others in their lives) to notice them and pay attention to them, support them and validate them. They want these people to work diligently to stop the unstoppable but, more importantly, to spend time focused on helping them.2. They want to look cool. In some schools, getting criticized is a sign of popularity. Simply put, you have to be cool to garner hate/jealousy/etc. By posting and responding to negative anonymous questions, it’s possible to look important by appearing to be cool enough to be attacked.3. They’re trying to trigger compliments. When teens are anonymously attacked, their friends often jump in to say nice things in response to the negative commentary. Thus, a desirable side effect of attacks is a stream of positive support, compliments, and other loving messages.”Now there is no suggestion that Hannah Smith was digital self-harming. However, the Formspring story should warn us to stop for pause before laying the blame at platforms like ask.fm. It also confirms the importance of adults not reacting too quickly to “cyber-bullying” incidents or of not acting without calm communication and investigation.

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