Ask.fm: Parents of Teens Greatest Nightmare

teen online safetyIf you’re a parent of a teenager, Ask.FM should definitely be on your radar—and not for a good reason. The Q&A app might, on the surface, seem innocent—yet it’s become a hotspot for profanity, innuendos and even bullying.

The backstory—I know about Ask.fm because of a recent conversation with a good friend and the mom of a teenage girl. We were discussing the dangers of the Internet and how teens don’t really understand why people like us (tech savvy web geeks) are such freaks about it. As I lambasted SnapChat and we discussed the dangers of Instagram and Kik messenger, she pointed me to Ask.fm and said it was her teen’s favorite site—and something high on her radar screen for potential danger to kids. That was all I needed to hear to want to know more.

Why Ask.fm Is Trouble

The Latvian-based platform launched in June 2010 as a European clone of Formspring. Since then, Ask.fm has hit more than 57 million users and, as CNET reports, is “adding members at a rate of 200,000 a day.” Did you get that? 200,000 new members a day!!!!!

Once you sign up, Ask.fm encourages you to add friends by connecting to a Facebook or Twitter account. Always awesome. After that, you’re invited to start answering questions like “Do you remember your first friend?” or “What was the last time you were angry? What happened?”

The big problem? These questions can quickly devolve into discussions of a sexual nature or troubling topics like suicide and eating disorders. And because the site has a primarily young user base (ages of 13 and 25), it’s a veritable playground for predators, who can gain access to user profiles and information simply by signing up for the site.

A Veritable Playground for Sexual Predators

I’m a mom experienced at raised teens during a time when one of the biggest dangers on the Web was Internet chat rooms. I’m now raising kids who’ve had devices in their hands pretty much since the moment they were born. I’ve lived this and I am living this, right along with you. Let me tell you, without question and from personal experience, sites like Ask.fm and Instagram and so many others are a sexual predator’s amusement park. And sexual predators–they know far more about the web and how they can use it to exploit than you do.

Sexual predators flock to sites like this and are quick to see the “value proposition” for their twisted minds. They pose as kids. They ask questions to gauge how old a kid is and quickly find out where they live. They are masterful at assessing how gullible your kid is and work to manipulate and gain trust. They get all the information they need because your kid doesn’t know any better. How could they? They think they’re talking to someone their own age. And they love making new friends. Friends who understand them. And those sexual predators, this is a cakewalk for them. Once they gain your kid’s trust, the next logical step is to try and set up a meeting.

Your kid is bait. Fresh, nubile, trusting, personal-information-vomiting-bait. Doubt me on this front? I’ll just ask you one question: how much are you willing to gamble with your kid’s safety? What about his or her life?

Then There’s The Bullying

Bullying is not a hypothetical problem—it’s a huge issue and one that is in part fueled by the web. I have 7-year-olds and we’ve seen (and experienced) multiple instances of bullying already–in first grade. Holy crap.

Add the Internet and teenagers and emotions and insecurities that are all part of growing up and bullying is a monumental problem. We hear stories on a daily basis of kids committing suicide because of photos or videos or other content shared on the web and that’s not getting better any time soon. Take a gander at these stats from Bullyingstatistics.org as related to bullying and suicide:

  • Suicide is the third leading cause of death among young people, resulting in about 4,400 deaths per year (CDC). For every suicide among young people, there are at least 100 suicide attempts. Over 14% of high school students have considered suicide and almost 7% have attempted it.
  • Bullying victims are between 2 and 0 times more likely to consider suicide than non-victims (studies by Yale University).
  • 10- to 14-year-old girls may be at even higher risk for suicide
  • ABC News reports that nearly 30% of students are either bullies or victims of bullying and some 160,000 kids stay home from school every day because of fear of bullying.

Look at what a quick Google search about teen bullying and suicide brings up, and hopefully you get my point. This is a massive problem. And if you have teens, something that should be on your radar screen.

teen bullying and suicide

Anonymity Is Hugely Problematic

One of the things that I imagine is attractive to teens about Ask.fm is anonymity. But as adults well know, anonymity combined with the Internet can lead to troll-like behavior and hatred all too easily. And for teens who don’t yet know any better, anonymity and what happens as a result of being able to hide online can enable already problematic situations to spiral out of control.

“The 13-year-old daughter of a CNET colleague said that Ask.fm was the cause of frequent conflicts at her school,” writes CNET’s Jennifer Van Grove. “The service became popular with her friends, mostly kids between the ages of 12 and 14, in March. Now everyone at her school has ‘an Ask.fm,’ she said.” Remember that stat about 200,000 new users every day? Yeah, that could be your kid.

This widespread use is one of many reasons that Ask.fm can be incredibly dangerous. In the CNET story, Ask.fm co-founder Ilja Terebin says the site performs automatic and manual content moderation around the clock to remove sexually explicit posts and derogatory language. A quick check through recent activity, however, and that claim seems questionable, if not downright false. Sounds about as reliable as SnapChat’s founder claiming that teens using his site for sexting never occurred to him. He’s an idiot.

Anonymity Is Hackable

For anyone anywhere to EVER think that something on the web is completely anonymous (or erasable), wake up and smell the coffee. Videos that are supposed to self-destruct? Ever hear of a screencapture?

Oh and by the way, that anonymity that Ask.fm thinks is so super cool? There’s a hack for that. So, say your kid says or shares something stupid on the site. Someone like me (or someone who has more dubious intentions in mind) can discover their identity in 20 seconds or less. Is your head reeling yet with the possibilities here? I hope so.

How To Protect Your Teens

Kids are dying because of what happens on the Internet. Families are filing lawsuits asking for sites to be taken down because they’ve lost their children. And parents—well, I don’t think many are paying attention, or if they are, they’re not paying enough attention.

Many friends I talk with about this think it’s cute that their kids are using Instagram and SnapChat, Kik and Ask.fm. They laugh and say “those kids, they know more about the Internet than I do!” And they are right. Parents think they know what’s going on, but really, I suspect many are clueless.

Most people don’t know as much about the Internet as my friends and I do, and I don’t say that to lord it over you. I hope to scare the hell out of you and make sure you realize how critical online safety is to your kids. And I hope that you’ll start paying lots of attention to what your kids are doing online. Today.

As troubling teen-targeted tools like Ask.fm, Snapchat, Kik Messenger and the more recent Privatext continue to flourish, it’s more imperative than ever to not only monitor how your kids are using the Internet, but also educate them on how to be safe.

All of these sites claim to offer privacy and anonymity, but, really, there’s no such thing on the Internet—and that’s imperative for teens to understand. It’s more important for parents to understand so they can protect their kids. Not only could supposedly secret information they share be used against them by potential bullies—it could also leave a digital trail that might compromise a future job search or hinder chances of a college acceptance.

How to Keep Kids Safe

Educate yourself about Internet safety. Read as much as you can get your hands on and for all that’s holy, don’t get your information from your kids. Talk to your kids about online safety just like you would any other serious topic. The best you can do is educate them and give them the knowledge to help encourage responsible decision-making—and hopefully they’ll follow suit. Nagging them to death works, too.

And then consider this safety checklist. And maybe even print it out and tape it to your wall somewhere, so you don’t get complacent and forget it. It might just save a life.

  • Talk to your kids. Over and over and over again. Once is not enough.
  • Don’t trust them. (Just like your parents trusted you not to drink and smoke or experiment with drugs and you did anyway, yeah, you get my drift).
  • Require they share their account and login information and check their accounts regularly.
  • Make sure privacy settings on all accounts are locked down.
  • Make doubly sure that geolocation settings are OFF (failing to do this can lead a predator right to your door).
  • Censor. Censor. Censor.
  • Say no. It’s okay to say “no” to things. I tell my kids they can’t have pierced ears until they’re 16. There’s nothing wrong with telling a teenager they can’t do something. Our job isn’t to be their friends, it’s to keep them safe. And alive.

In the meantime? We’ll do our part by continuing to call out these skeezy app makers and talking about this to everyone who will listen.

What’s your take on sites like Ask.fm, Snapchat, Kik Messenger and Privatext? And for the parents out there, we’d love to know how you talk to your kids about online safety.

Want to read more on this? Here are some great resources:

How Predators are Using Instagram and Why Your Child is at Risk

Ask.fm, The Troubling Secret Playground of Teens and Tweens

Parents Beware: Instagram & Kik Messenger are a Dangerous Combination

Parents: A Word About Instagram

Kik: What it is and What Parents Need to Know

Move Over, Snapchat: There’s A New Way To Send Private Sexts

Image: Randy Pertiet via Compfight cc

  • angelaengland

    Yes, yes, yes! “It’s not our job to be their friend” – I see so many parents making this mistake – even with little guys, seven or eight. I told a friend the other day if your little kid likes you 100% of the time you are doing the parent-thing wrong!

    This is such an important conversation. We parents HAVE to have it – and often. And be aware. And watch our kids. CLOSELY. Thank you for this post. So important.

  • ShellyKramer

    Thanks Ang. You know I agree on this front. We’ve GOT to keep talking about this!

  • http://thesocialjoint.com/ Lucretia M Pruitt

    Yes!! This is so spot on. I wish I could *make* every parent of digital kids I know actually read this. So many of them put their heads in the sand like frightened ostriches whenever it’s brought to their attention that these issues exist.
    Love this. Passing it along hoping it helps somewhere.

  • ShellyKramer

    Thanks so much, Lucretia. I feel the same way. And know people tire of my incessant talk of this. But dammit, it’s important. More important than they know. We, however, get it. And it scares the shit out of us!!!! Thank you :))

  • Matt LaCasse

    A fantastic article, Shelly. Mine is just 10-months old, but I’m already framing rules in my head about how she’ll be allowed to access the Internet. Granted, I have zero experience at raising a teenager, but transparency makes a difference. To that end, no wireless devices in her room. Period. Phone is kept in the living room, where it is also charged overnight. Computer use happens in the kitchen or living room. Your ideas on access to accounts is a good one.

    I’m sure I’ll be coming back for more advice as she grows up. Just taking the initial steps now to make sure she’s safe.

  • http://naturallyeducational.com/ CandaceApril

    Great article–it is so hard to keep up with the pace of new technology. Mine are still young (6, 4, 2) but I know soon I will have to deal with this!

  • ShellyKramer

    Thanks Candace. I have young ones, too, so this is very much on my radar screen. Even at 7, they are incredibly web savvy.

  • ShellyKramer

    Thanks Matt. She’ll be a digital princess in no time — my girls are just 7 now and it’s amazing what they know and how adept they are at using devices and the Internet. Amazing and frightening, all wrapped up together!

  • http://soulati.com/blog Soulati

    She’s 11.5; I’m all over this. Sigh. Scared for her future with this crap. Thanks for such a thorough reminder for me; it’s time, I guess.

  • http://freetraffictip.com Tinu

    Very important article. Without technology, all it takes for a kid to get into a hurtful abusive situation is a few seconds when no one is paying attention, and a child who is unprepared for what could happen.

    WIth it? This is 911- level stuff. It’s a national epidemic on the emergency level. That sounds like an exaggeration but to me it is until kids are safe. With technology the potential danger is heightened- the reach of a potential predator is magnified, and the risk of getting caught is lessened.

    “Adult retrospective studies show that 1 in 4 women and 1 in 6 men were sexually abused before the age of 18 (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 2006). ”

    Those are statistics among people BEFORE the internet. Everyone who reads this article needs to see it as a wake-up call. Because this trend Can be stopped.

  • ShellyKramer

    Thanks Tinu. Glad to see I’m not the only one rabid about this :)))

  • Mary Green

    Hi Shelly,

    What a great summary of the risks of social media and the internet for today’s children. It surprises me how laid back some parents are about this, because it can effect our children so deeply. Today’s parents need to read this, I hope some parenting sites can feature it on their site, or write their own version. Great job!!

  • ShellyKramer

    Thanks Mary!! It surprises me, too. So I’ll keep nagging about it ;)

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  • Kayleigh Herbertson

    Is one of your points genuinely “Don’t trust them”? That’s sickening to read for someone who grew up with the internet and parents who don’t even know how to use a computer. You don’t for one second cover the areas of the child learning how to say “no”, having the confidence to go with their gut if they feel something is wrong, which are the real problems with predators (and I encountered a few).

    I’d also recommend appointing someone around their age as a “buddy” that they can talk to if they’re worried about stuff online. Could be an older friend, friend of the family or a member of the community. It won’t be you, especially with the crazy totalitarian regime described above painted in fear and terror. I wouldn’t share my account information with my mum, I would set one up in secret. Do you want to read their diaries as well? Teach them the lessons to have confidence, have a safety net in place for people they can talk to, talk to them if they’re distressed and try to practically explain what we all learn about bullying as we get older. TRUST YOUR KIDS.

  • http://www.fashionadjacent.com/ Omega

    couldn’t agree more with this. Perhaps instead of causing conflict and alienating yourself from your kids, you can instead earn their trust and teach them how to protect themselves.. it’s really the only effective method in the long run. My 16 year old is very savvy and I feel confident she can navigate her connected world – I respect her intelligence and her judgment and it makes me really sad that this seems unusual.

  • ShellyKramer

    That’s terrific. I trusted my teens too when they were young. Then I discovered by accident that one was in a chat room chatting with what were probably old men, looking to connect with a 15 year old. Then I discovered one checking out a porn site. I still trusted them, I just made sure they knew that I knew what they were doing online and that my overarching goal was to protect them. The rest of the story is that they are now 32 and 30 and realize that I was right to be concerned. And thank me for it. Trust and love, they go together. And sometimes 15, 16, 17 year old brains don’t always know what’s best. But, most importantly, there’s not a one-size-fits-all solution for every parent and for every kid. You have to do what’s right for you and your kids. That’s what’s right.

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  • http://freetraffictip.com Tinu

    Well I have a bit of a history there. And two things could have changed everything 1- a more present caretaker in my pare t’s absence, who knew what to look for and 2- more people having public conversations about everything surrounding child abuse.

    When you think about how it’s nearly always someone a child knows and trusts, it becomes obvious to me that we all need to limit access to our community’s children, and watch for places where we might not realize predators can hide.

  • ShellyKramer

    It is frightening beyond measure, Tinu. And the data that shows that it’s most often someone a child knows, even more frightening and disgusting.

  • http://freetraffictip.com Tinu

    Even if you trust your kids, you may be right not to trust their judgement. I was a pretty smart kid at academics but sadly it was pain that taught me emotional intelligence. I inherited a code of honor that included obeying adults even when I wasn’t sure they were right, and not ever, ever snitching. By the time I was taught the exceptions to these rules the damage was done.

    Between hormones, inexperience and parents not being the sole influence on a child, it’s sometimes necessary to check them. I’d give anything to have had less trusting guardians at the time.

  • ShellyKramer

    I had my own set of slightly ignorant and totally trusting parents, Tinu, so my passion about this comes from a similar point as yours. And I do trust my kids and want them to learn and grow and make mistakes along the way. My hope is to prevent mistakes that cause them great harm. Sometimes that gets overlooked when we talk about “trust” and I think there are different degrees of trust that can let them be who they want to be, but also keep them safe.

  • http://freetraffictip.com Tinu

    Absolutely.

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  • http://www.tommesani.com/ Stefano Tommesani

    After reading this article, I have built in my spare time a simple software application designed to help parents find their kids on Ask.fm and track what they are saying. It is completely free and you can download it from here:

    http://www.tommesani.com/index.php/software/askwatch-track-your-kids-on-askfm.html

    I welcome any feedback and suggestion.

  • ShellyKramer

    Thanks Stefano. I’ll definitely check it out!

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  • ConcernedMom

    Thanks for the article. The problem is this: I required my daughter to provide me with her instagram password so I could monitor her activity. I later found out that she kept that page “clean” and had a second page that I was unaware of that was full of sexual language. She also had, after being told not to do so, kik and ask accounts. I deactivated them all and she is now forbidden from having any device that either connects to the web or can have apps downloaded. More so than “monitoring” accounts. Go through their phones, ipods, ipads and laptops to see what they are really doing.

  • ShellyKramer

    Thank you SO MUCH for sharing your story. I really appreciate it. And together, hopefully these stories can help keep parents vigilant and kids safe. I soooo appreciate you coming by to share this – I can’t tell you enough how grateful I am.

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