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Ask.fm reforms will not tackle abuse UCLan researcher publishes detailed findings

23 August 2013

Lyndsey Boardman

‘Ask is made for bullying’ – that’s the chilling warning from one of the young participants in a study from the University of Central Lancashire (UCLan) into the networking website Ask.fm.

‘Ask is made for bullying’ – that’s the chilling warning from one of the young participants in a study from the University of Central Lancashire (UCLan) into the networking website Ask.fm.

And despite the owners’ recent attempts to address abusive behaviour on the site, the study throws up significant doubts that their actions will do enough to address the widespread concerns of parents and educators.

Led by senior journalism lecturer Amy Binns, Facebook’s Ugly Sisters: Anonymity and Abuse on Formspring and Ask.fm, has been published in the Media Education Research Journal. The study is based on findings of a detailed survey of over 300 girls at a British state school about their use of Facebook, Twitter, Ask.fm and its predecessor Formspring.

The UCLan study found that 38% of the young girls using Ask.fm have been sent frightening, upsetting or embarrassing messages anonymously.

Formspring and Ask.fm, the two question-and-answer sites, allow members to ask each other questions and receive replies via text messages, videos and photographs. Unlike other social networking websites, users can post anonymously.

Relatively unknown until recently due to their unattractiveness to adults, these sites are growing rapidly and have already been associated with at least eight suicides amongst teenagers.

Abusive messages reported by the girls who participated in the study were usually focused on sexual behaviour, looks and projected image, with a few insults around ‘cockiness’. Unlike most incidences of internet flaming they were finely targeted, clearly coming from knowledge of the victim and so having greater power to wound.

They included (and are recorded as written): “your ugly”, “you’re weird”, “you’re such a freak”, “you should die”, “you’re an attention seeking whore”, “Everyone in 8c hates you”, “what is ur bra size, it looks titch”, “‘your friendship group – bitchiest group in y8”, “why do you still hang round with beccy she doesn’t want to be your friend anymore”, “how far did you go with Dominic”, “why do you bum off everyone you see?”

Amy Binns said: “One of the users said the site was made for bullying, and she is right, it shows in the figures. I started this research more than a year ago, there had already been suicides then and the Ask.fm site owners were well aware of it.

“When I wrote the questionnaire I knew the answers were going to be ugly, but I found the extreme personal abuse really upsetting to read. It’s tempting to think that all this abuse doesn’t really matter, that it’s just name-calling and only a few highly-sensitive people are taking it seriously, but that’s not the case.

“A lot of these young people are not just shrugging this abuse off. Many of them are taking it very much to heart, especially as they know it’s their classmates, maybe even their friends, sending them abuse. These suicides are just the tip of a very nasty iceberg.”

"The founders have proposed a few changes, but the fundamental site design takes away responsibility and makes abusing your friends and classmates seem like a game."

Commenting on the proposed changes to address abusive behaviour, Ms Binns said:

“The founders have proposed a few changes, but the fundamental site design takes away responsibility and makes abusing your friends and classmates seem like a game."

“This is the first time the site’s owners the Terebins have shown any sense of responsibility themselves, despite many other suicides, and I really doubt whether their new safety policies can or will be implemented properly.

“They say they will ‘deal with reports’ but they haven’t said how. They have not offered to report serial abusers to the police within the user’s own country, or work with police forces to identify people who send abuse. I would call on them to state publicly that they will work with police in users’ own countries when abuse is reported. This is the only thing I can think of that might have a significant effect.”