Today I received a phone call from a Sydney mother of a Year 8 school girl asking advice about the Q&A social media platform Ask.FM in relation to an ongoing cyber bullying episode. Apparently an Ask.FM account (not her daughters) was receiving anonymous questions that were set up to look as if they came from her daughter. These questions were “rude and unsavoury” and as a result her daughter was embarrassed and mortified that they were designed to look as if they were coming from her. “People are starting to hate me!”
What is Ask.FM?
Ask.FM is a question and answer social media site with over 52 million registered users and with over 20 million visitors per day based in Latvia. It is a free app down-loadable to phones and other mobile devices through apps stores and accessible through P.C browsers, it is rated 12yrs+ on the Apple store, but 13+ on their Terms Of Services.
Ask.FM is a variation on a few similar types of Q&A social media apps that have been around for a few years, where you can set up a profile and anyone else with an Ask.FM profile can ask you questions. You can then answer these questions by text or via video in response. It is a bit like Formspring, which has also been the subject of some controversy around cyber bullying.
You may have heard of Ask.FM as there have been some high profile cases of Teens committing suicide after being bullied on this platform.
Why Is It Popular Amongst Teens?
Ask.FM seems to encourage users to feel as if they are a bit of an online celebrity being interviewed by their fans. The more likes and questions your profile has the more popular you seem. Scrolling through the “Popular” stream gives you a pretty good idea of the sort of questions being asked of these online “celebrities”. The most popular profiles seem to have their accounts set up so that they can be asked questions anonymously, which of course allows no accountability. About 50% of the questions are abusive and there’s a LOT of pornographic questions and hateful questions, e.g “Why don’t you Kill yourself” Which then encourages “fans” to defend the profile being abused. Drama central! This is clearly NOT a social media site for sensitive or younger teens. Even profiles that have very little interaction or “likes” have around 50% abusive questions especially if they are set to accept anonymous questions.
How Do You Join Up?
Making an Ask.FM account only requires an email address, a profile name, which is supposed to be real, and a birth date, there are no identity checks, you are not asked to verify your details, so there are many “fake” accounts. Your Ask.FM profiles can also be linked with Tumblr, Facebook and Twitter, so that all your interaction on Ask.FM can be shared further. Many kids are finding friends with Ask.FM accounts through Facebook.
Is it moderated?
The CEO of the company in a recent interview indicated that they do have moderators who deal with complaints and who monitor abusive keywords and pornography. According to the CEO Ask.FM does have some keyword filters set up to block pornographic words, but it’s clearly it’s a very unsophisticated system and terribly understaffed. Pornographic words and hate speech abound on Ask.FM none of which appear to be blocked by their so called filters. The CEO of Ask.FM in the same interview (link above) when questioned about his accountability for the amount of cyber bullying and abuse on this site, blamed all the cyber bullying on the parents of the kids that were doing it and the kids themselves. The parents were blamed because they were not supervising their children online. Quote from the CEO “Yes. FormSpring had the same problem. Kids lack attention, mainly because parents are doing other things such as watching TV, drinking beer and reading the tabloids.” He is partially right, it’s a bit like a gun manufacturer saying it wasn’t his fault that others used his weapons to kill. Like guns though, this site needs to come with a danger warning, and needs some serious regulation. Setting the age limit as appropriate for children age 12+ or 13+ as per the T.O.S is clearly not accurate, this platform doesn’t have enough filters, privacy or parental controls to be able to protect young teens. I think it needs to be much more restricted and listed as 18+ at least.
The CEO of Ask.FM has a point!
Adults do need to be more aware of where their children are going online and how they are behaving online. Children also have to be aware of their responsibilities online.
The problem with Ask.FM is accountability, they don’t seem to have any. So tracking down someone who might be threatening you or your child and preventing them from continuing to do so seems unlikely. Deleting abusive comments and reporting is no where near as easy as some other social media platforms, and their “filters” are clearly not working.
Why Not Just Shut Down Your Profile?
Shutting down your account only works if you have one, if, like my client, the abuse is being done on another account, this bullying might continue on for quite some time. I felt somewhat helpless at being able to advise my client.
What’s The Danger?
Cyber Bullying and abuse seems to be the main one, it’s rampant, and many people seem to carry on responding to awful questions regardless.
The young lady who called me today didn’t have an Ask.FM account, but she was alerted to these questions being asked as if they were from her, by others who saw them. Some of her school mates were starting to think she really did write these questions and were attacking her for it. This behaviour is of course cyber bullying, fraud and impersonation.
The other danger with Ask.FM is that if you do have an account you can be cyber bullied and abused in the questions, then others can “like” the questions being asked of you and spread them to other apps, like Facebook and Twitter. There are also cases of people being impersonated by having Ask.FM accounts set up in their name. There is also potential for predatory behaviour as adults can of course connect with teen profiles.
Your Child’s Data Can Be Sold Off!
From Ask.FM’s Terms Of Service:
If your child uploads pictures or videos to Ask.FM they can use them in any way they choose.
“By submitting content through the ask.fm service, you grant ask.fm a worldwide, non-exclusive, royalty-free license to use, copy, reproduce, process, adapt, modify, publish, transmit, display and distribute such content in any and all media or distribution methods. Such additional uses by ask.fm, or other companies, organizations or individuals who partner with ask.fm, may be made with no compensation paid to you with respect to the content that you submit, post, transmit or otherwise make available through the ask.fm service”
How to use Ask.FM safely
There is no way to use Ask.FM safely, all profiles are public, and there are no parental controls. You can certainly disable anonymous questions in the privacy settings, but your profile details questions and answers can all be seen publicly without the reader even having an Ask.FM account. You can hide your answers from the public “stream” but if your account is searched for, the questions and answers will not be hidden.
Note: In Ask.FM’s Terms Of Service:
“You understand that in using the ask.fm service you may encounter content that may be deemed objectionable, obscene or in poor taste, which content may or may not be identified as having explicit language. 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”
Although the CEO said they monitor content…the T.O.S says they do not. “Warning Warning Will Robinson!”
How To Report Impersonation or abusive Comments.
Firstly the mother and daughter that called me,did exactly the right thing. They copied evidence of the abusive impersonation that was occurring on Ask.FM via screen shots (pressing the home and on/off switch on mobile devices to take a picture of the screen) and then approached the daughters school to report it. The school suggested that they contact the police.
You can report abusive and fake accounts by going to this link and filling out an email form. This does not guarantee that anything will be done about your complaint, there are only 50 moderators working for this company to deal with complaints.
Again…From the T.O.S “Ask.fm reserves the right, but has no obligation, to monitor disputes between you and other users.”
You can report offensive questions even if you don’t have an account, but unlike Facebook abuse reporting Ask.FM won’t remove the comment from your account , it is simply sent for moderation.
You can block anyone sending you an abusive question, to prevent them sending you any other questions, but you can’t block or report anyone if they are impersonating you, you have to email the company.
The Privacy Settings:
The minimal privacy settings can protect your account from being asked questions by anonymous questioners, and can hide your answers from the public “Stream” but all your questions and answers will still show up publicly.
From what I’ve seen from Ask.FM it is not suitable for Teens at all. If adults want to expose themselves to that sort of abuse and violation then that’s up to them.
What’s your experience been with this app?