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A few months ago most parents would have been completely unaware of Ask.fm, the social network that has become exceedingly popular with teenagers (making up around half of its users), and enables them to ask and answer questions about themselves and their peers anonymously.
The site then achieved mainstream attention, including calls for it to be banned, after the tragic death of Hannah Smith, a teenager who took her own life after becoming the victim of abuse on the site. Many parents I speak to are hugely concerned about cyberbullying, and I have been asked numerous times in the last month about which site is the next one to warn their children about.
Mobile chat applications are already very popular with children and young people, with BlackBerry Messenger (BBM) and WhatsApp pioneering the type of network that has threatened to overhaul SMS as the default mode of communication for the technologically savvy. But, while both of those apps require forms of identity verification (including mobile number) that can aid an investigation into serious bullying or grooming, alternatives like Kik and Touch only require an email.
One site that has caused problems ever since I started my job is Little Gossip; a website developed to allow children to share gossip about their peers and teachers at school. It now has a token attempt to discourage children and bullying on its homepage, but its reporting and safety mechanisms are dangerously lacking.
Finally, consider that it might not even be a ‘social network’ as we know it that comes under similar scrutiny to Ask.fm in the future. Snapchat is already very popular with children and adults alike and, it could be argued, has legitimised potentially dangerous image-sharing among children. While my experiences so far with GTA Online have introduced me to a manic, hyper-real environment where gangs of people communicating via headset can get up to all manner of fun, but with the potential for serious abuse, bullying, and even stealing in-game cash that people will have paid real-world money for.
Rather than looking for the next specific site to try and avoid, parents need to be aware of the positives and negatives of every site and network their children use.
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Ask.fm wasn't the first Ask.fm, so to speak, and much of the criticism levelled at it by old media was both inaccurate and unfair. Yes, anonymous Q&A can be misused, but it's also an enabler for those who would be uncomfortable asking or answering otherwise.
Children can be cruel. Adults can be cruel. Nature is red in tooth and claw. It's not the sites, it's the people; helping those who become targets deal with the insults and pressures is important and powerful. Helping those who instigate the insults and targeting is harder, because to a degree it is how they have grown up online that is the cause. Children are not being helped to grow up online. Exposure tends to be a bit on/off rather than a gradated introduction; in the physical world we use adaptive boundaries to help children grow up, but these are more or less absent in the online world. This absence has a number of consequences, and sadly these are mostly negative.
For what its worth, the tweens seem to be going towards Instagram, and trading much insults through the comments there...
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Another site that is very similar is Qooh.me. This is one not a lot of parents know about but plenty of kids do. Same question and answer type format with the potential for anonymity of the question askers. I think whilst it is important we keep as up to date as we can with some of the sites out there, it is far more important we keep a close eye on the types of things kids are doing online and thus try to teach and guide them on the most appropriate behaviour. Any site can be potentially dangerous and any site can be used safely. It is people and their behaviours that are the most important aspect of online interactions. If children know what is and is not appropriate to say and do online, they have a better chance of safely navigating which sites are a positive experience for themselves and others.