Educator, administrator and parental awareness is key to preventing online abuse and cyberbullying

ask_fm-logo-200x200Can’t remember the name of that great restaurant you went to last night? How many miles it is the moon? Type any question into a search engine and you’ll likely find an answer and an app for that within a few clicks.

One app is taking the curiosity of the average internet surfer to a whole new level.

Inspired by the internet’s vast question-and-answer capabilities, founders of Ask.fm created a tool for teenagers to ask and answer questions. What makes it unique is that users can choose to submit questions and answers anonymously.

The option allows people to be “bolder and more honest,” according to the Ask.fm website. But this can yield heartbreaking results.

After the suicide of 14-year-old Hannah Smith last year, Smith’s father found posts on her Ask.fm account telling her to die. Later in the investigation, authorities found that she sent most of the hate messages to herself. This is one of at least nine cases of teenage suicides in which those who died were regular Ask.fm users.

(Next page: What educators can do to help stop cyberbullying)

“Ability to ask anonymous questions is an important element of our service,” said Liva Biseniece, Ask.fm’s director of external affairs . “While we believe in anonymity, we also see that few people can spoil the experience of the rest of us by abusing the rules of the game. This is why we are building a robust user safety system to minimize online communication risks for our users.”

During the investigation into Smith’s case, Ask.fm agreed to help authorities and established a Safety Center site with an FAQ page for parents, “Dos and Don’ts” for users, and privacy policy information. The company also installed software that detects and automatically deletes offensive content, emphasizing, “anonymity does not mean unaccountability.”

Cyberbullying is not exclusive to the Ask.fm app.

According to a study released last month, cyberbullying tripled in 2013. In a survey with more than 10,000 youth, Ditch the Label found that Ask.fm, Facebook, and Twitter are the most likely sources of cyberbullying, because they have the highest traffic of all social networks.

Teachers are often in a difficult position when it comes to students using social media. Dan Raisbeck, co-founder of the anti-bullying organization Cybersmile, said teachers should not be afraid of it.

“Try to understand how kids are using Ask.fm. Become familiar with these sites,” said Raisbeck. “Parents and teachers need to know about this.”

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Though teachers may not have any control over what social media their students use outside of school, they can play an integral role in teaching students how to use social media properly and respectfully. The Cybersmile Foundation offers educational tools to teach children age 5-16 about cyber safety.

Teachers have access to free lecture materials, posters, and research on the organization’s website. Activities are broken into categories by age range and can last as little as 15 minutes. The important part is that teachers and students can have an open dialogue.

“Teachers have to address the underlying issue,” said Raisbeck. “Different schools have different problems but it’s all about the education.”

More resources to help combat cyberbullying:

Internet slang dictionary and translator

2013 Annual Cyberbullying Survey

Cybersmile Foundation

Lisa Driscoll is an editorial intern at eSchool News.

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