Ask.fm has recently announced that they have hit the 50 million registered users mark, making it one of the biggest social media sites in the world. Considering that they also claimed 9 million daily uniques in November 2012, when the site only had about 25 million registered users, it also makes it one of the most visited websites on the web with a current Alexa ranking at 168. That is a 236 spots jump since November.
The site boils down to a Q&A social network where anybody can ask each other questions. This would be all well and good, however as an option they provide full anonymity to people asking the questions. Combine that with a target group of 13-18 year old teenagers and you get a potentially dangerous mix, which has already resulted in a number of scandalous problems for the site with at least five suicides being linked to bullying on Ask.fm.
Moreover different organizations are trying to either force governments to act against the site or to convince companies to boycott advertising on it. In a time of loss it's understandable that the the parents of these teenagers feel like they need to do something concrete, and aksing Ask.fm to shut down seems like the most direct step to stop near-identical suicides linked to the site in the future. This is definitely an issue that can not be ignored but the question to ask here: "Is Ask.fm really the one to blame?"
Sure, the site's anonymity allows disgruntled class-mates, trolls and haters to ask questions and put up comments without fear of a backlash. For instance in one recent case, the victim was told: ‘You really are a freak’, ‘no one likes you’ and ‘you deserve sick things to happen to you’. However this type of anonymity can be created anywhere, be it Facebook, Twitter or any other site. The deeper problem here is not Ask.fm but the internet at large and how the newer generations are being introduced to it.
Those that lived to see the birth of "the internet" were introduced to it gradually. They were taught the pitfalls of the internet one at a time and hence learned not to take it too seriously as everybody is more or less familiar with trolling, the fact that people on the internet say insensitive things, and so on.
The teenagers of today, however, are thrown at this unexplored, dangerous and unpredictable world all at once. At around the age of 13, when they are allowed to register on most social networks, including Ask.fm - they get a choice of hundreds of sites that can potentially lead to horrid outcomes.
Even if somebody does manage to close down Ask.fm, teenagers will just use FormSpring, which was Ask.fm's inspiration to begin with. Alternatively there are dozens of sites and internet activities that cause suicides and bullying ranging from Myspace to Twitter or games.
It is strange that we live in a world that has tried to outlaw or ban so many things only to find out that the only way to solve any real problems is by looking for the root, and yet we still go after what is on the surface. Ask.fm is trying to run a legitimate business and sure, they can introduce a lot of things to minimize the risks and probably should.
However the solution should start at home through parenting and education and not with banning and boycotting individual sites. When kids that were actually spending time outside and without the internet were growing up, they were all told "not to take candy from strangers".
So the only real solution is to do that for the modern age and teach kids about how internet works, who the trolls are an how they can attack you. It is no different than what our parents taught us about strangers, we just seem to have a belief that kids will figure out "the internet" all on their own. Some will, but many will not. We need to take responsibility and not shift the blame to sites like Ask.fm for it.
We have reached out the Ilya Terebin, the CEO of Ask.fm for comments and will update this story if we get a reply.
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