Every once in a while a parent or youth worker will ask me about Ask.fm. I thought it’d be useful to share a little bit about this smallish social network and how to help your teenager use it in a way that won’t lead them to getting hurt.
What is Ask.fm?
The pathway to understanding Ask.fm starts with a short-term social media explosion called Formspring. (Now called Spring.Me.) In 2009, an online form building company called Formstack launched Formspring as a marketing & outreach effort. They offered users the ability to create an account with a single form, proving to new users that you could create a form in a few seconds and post the link onto Facebook or Twitter or a blog.
It worked! It was easy. In fact, a little too easy…
Before long this little marketing strategy exploded. In 45 days they had over 1 million people try it… but, to their surprise, it was mostly teenagers asking a single question: What do you think about me?
Above you’ll notice that this little app, Formspring, has changed names a lot. That was because of two things:
- Formstack spun it off quickly, while it started as a marketing effort it quickly became much more than that, an anonymous social network serving more than 1 million teenagers, thus was out-of-scope for Formstack. They didn’t have a use for it, but there were some on their team who were interested in it and ran with it, creating Formspring.
- Controversy. Almost from the beginning of Formspring, problems erupted. In 2009 and 2010 we didn’t really have a term called cyberbullying. And law enforcement, schools, and parents didn’t know what to do about it because they couldn’t quite wrap their heads around what it was. But cases of extreme online bullying, some resulting in the suicide of teenagers, started pointing back to Formspring.
What’s that got to do with Ask.fm? You need to know that Ask.fm is essentially a copycat of Formspring, just bigger. It’s not the same company or the same people. But it basically is the same.
Ask.fm is a Latvian start-up, targeted mostly at teenagers, which allows users to create an account and ask their friends questions anonymously or linked to an account.
And Ask.fm is relatively small with about 80 million active users posting 30 million questions per day.
I find, in traveling around and talking to teenagers & parents, that Ask.fm is highly regional in usage. In other words, it’s not generally popular with all teenagers, but pockets of users. I also find it more popular with young teenagers and tweens than I do with high school students.
As an iteration of the disaster which was Formspring, I think it’s a little bit better (and safer) than it’s predecessor. Here’s what I mean….
The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly on Ask.fm
“What do you really think about me?” This is a powerful and relevant question to any teenager. Developmentally, their brains are newly exposed to the reality of 3rd party thinking… that the people in their lives view them differently than they view themselves, and that naturally leads to a lot of curiosity.
Even as adults, if we could somehow find out what all of our friends, co-workers, and associates really thought about us… we’d really like to know that. That can be good and even healthy, even.
But what makes things like Ask.fm dangerous is that you ask the question outside of the social cues you’d get in asking that question face-to-face. (Never mind the fact that most teenagers are so inexperienced at reading social cues that their feelings would get hurt no matter what.)
So on the one hand, as the question asker, it feels like you are really getting an honest answer. But on the other hand, the person answering the question could be truly honest or just flippant or sarcastic or intentionally mean in a way that you’d know they were being sarcastic if you could see their face. Or they could just completely make something up.
Where it gets ugly (as in deadly) is when you use Ask.fm alone and anonymously. See, each time you post a question you have the option to decide if only your friends can answer the question or if you’ll allow your friends (or random people) to answer the question without linking it to their user account, anonymously.
Online anonymity, or perceived anonymity, and teenagers simply should not mix. In general people answer anonymous questions more flippantly. (Researchers know this, which is why they usually use anonymous surveys as part of their research, but not all of it.)
Heck, even normally polite adults feel free to be flat out mean if they think that their answer won’t point back to them. But adults have a greater ability to understand that… we get it better than an inexperienced teenager who is having these 3rd person thoughts of herself for the first time. Developmentally it’s all so new to her… she just doesn’t know how to process it, she has no ability to recognize that it’s a dumb thing to ask or that most of the answers are completely made up.
So when a teenage girl innocently asks “What do you really think about me?” and anonymous people start to answer, her friends might say real things… like “You’re so sweet Katie, I love you!” But down the road, when it gets to people who don’t even know what that teenager is, they’ll feel free to post horrible, sarcastic, and untrue things like “You’re such a slut. Everyone hates you.”
I’ve heard of Ask.fm spinning so out-of-control that the name-calling becomes a meme unto itself, complete with fake Instagram, Twitter, and Kik accounts for a teenagers alter ego as seen on Ask.fm.
And all of this happens on the perceived privacy of a teenagers phone. (Probably while watching TV with her parents.)
That’s when Ask.fm gets deadly. With 25 people telling you that you’re a worthless slut who should kill herself, sadly… that starts to seem like a viable option.
How to use it safely
I give credit where it’s due. Unlike Snapchat, which I continue to argue was created as a bait for teenage and young adult females to send illicit photos of themselves to the point where my best advice is simply to delete it, Ask.fm has made legitimate attempts to educate teenagers on how to use the app more safely.
There are only 6 links on their homepage and the first one is called “Safety.” (Hint: When your #1 link on your website is about safety… you know the app is dangerous!)
Anonymity should never be used to ask questions that are mean or hurtful. Asking a question anonymously on Ask.fm hides your name from the person you’re asking and from other users. We will never reveal your identity to the user. This can be useful if you’re feeling shy or think that the recipient would be more comfortable answering a question without knowing who may have asked it.
If you break the rules, you are responsible – and we can supply identifying information to law enforcement if necessary.
6 Tips for Ask.fm users
If you chose to use Ask.fm (which I don’t recommend, at all) here’s a few ways to use it safely.
- Only friend people you’ve met face-to-face.
- Never allow anonymous answers. Ever. Never. Never ever ever never. Ever.
- Don’t use Ask.fm alone. Sitting in your PJs on a Saturday morning eating Cheerios is not a good time to ask your friends if they think you are fat.
- Don’t ever ask a question you wouldn’t ask your mom. Because she might one day see what you’ve been asking.
- Don’t ever answer a question with an answer you wouldn’t want your mom to see. Because she might one day see your answers.
- If someone posts mean things, delete ’em. Seriously, you’ll be better off for it.
Learn more: If you’d like to learn more about keeping yourself and your teenager safe online, check out the book I co-authored, A Parent’s Guide to Understanding Social Media.