Ask.fm highlights teenagers' desire for privacy; ease of migration to privacy rich platforms

Mark Leiser: I am a PhD Candidate in Cyber Law at the University of Strathclyde in Glasgow. I have written submissions for the Leveson Inquiry into the culture and ethics of the media and for the Scottish Parliament on the use of social media during trials. My PhD is supervised by Professor Andrew Murray at the London School of Economics and focuses on the effectiveness of cyber-regulation. My research and interests revolve around main areas of Internet law and policy including internet governance & regulation, democracy, social media, privacy, and intellectual property. My PhD research focuses on developing a system of modelling to measure the effectiveness and legitimacy of Internet Regulation. I write in a personal capacity.

The backlash against Ask.fm in the aftermath of a spate of teenage suicides needs to give way to a discussion about how and why teenagers use privacy rich sites and are leaving Facebook in flocks.

If Facebook is losing out on the teenager market, then what solution is there for social media sites that are attracting more and more teenagers? There is a strong argument that we need to understand what is it about these alternative social media sites that drive teenagers to these types of platforms? Ironically, it may have a lot to do with ‘personal space’. Kids don’t want to share a platform with their parents. Kids want privacy and children have a right to privacy – and not just in the legal sense because it’s enshrined in Article 16 of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child, which the UK has both signed and ratified.

What about the platform? Can social networking sites facilitate some sort of architecture that protects both children and their privacy? Ask.fm’s terms and conditions require that users follow a certain code of conduct and focus on a set of behavioural norms when interacting on the platform. Specifically, it is against the T&Cs to “transmit or encourage the transmission of unlawful, harassing, libellous, abusive, threatening, harmful, vulgar, obscene or otherwise objectionable material of any kind or nature”. But how is that specific direction implemented in a site that has little to no moderation and oversight nor a ‘panic button’ to report abuse. Take for example the page featuring Rutgers University students’ crushes, as described in the 144-year-old student newspaper The Tarqum:People submit confessions about their crush anonymously to an ask.fm account and @ru_crushes tweets them for all to see on Twitter. The reporter goes on to write, “To be fair, the ask.fm page chides users for being too vulgar, warning that, ‘if you think the ones posted now are bad, you’d be surprised.’ I’m not surprised. People are weird. People are sexual. People want to share. People think weird and sexual things and then they share them. I am perplexed, though. Can’t we share on a higher level?”Secondly, as @stephenemm pointed out to me this morning, ask.fm has incredibly easy settings to use: “It’s incredibly easy. Click Settings, then ‘do not allow anonymous questions’.” The real question for us to be asking our teenagers is this: “Why do you like using anonymous questions and answering especially when you might get particularly hateful responses?” If we can address this we might find out that what I suspect all along: teenagers want privacy and will flock to networking sites where they will get it. If you want to know what your child is thinking about and caring about, and what they might be doing in their private lives, the best way, as the is to develop and foster the type of relationship with your child where they trust you enough to tell you.

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