Written by ALEX ASPACHER Sentinel Staff Writer
Friday, 08 November 2013 10:27
Words can cut like knives.
|(Photo Illustration: Scott Williams/Sentinel-Tribune)
"It's funny how you think you have friends."
"I hope you go anorexic and die."
Those words, and worse, were left on one Perrysburg student's profile page on Ask.fm, a social media website and mobile app that has been blocked from school computers and networks.
A response from the student was frighteningly accurate: "It's people like you who make people want to commit suicide."
Many interactions aren't as shocking, with conversations about preferences in music and food, favorite movies and even compliments making up the bulk of many profiles. But references to sex, innuendo and insults are tucked in amongst the innocent posts, and one doesn't have to search for long to uncover an unpleasant exchange like the one above.
While bullying is forbidden and policed within Perrysburg schools, Ask.fm has created a disturbing haven away from watchers-over that allows its many teen users to respond to anonymous questions from others.
Privacy settings can restrict anonymous questions and allow for blocking of heckling users, but those controls haven't dissuaded many of the nameless, faceless tormentors who attack others from behind a computer or smartphone screen.
More troubling than children engaging with unnamed peers from school is the potential danger of students conversing with strangers whose profiles may not accurately represent their "real-life" identity. Although Ask.fm requests a full name, birthday and email address during sign-up, it falls prey, like many other websites, to users who can be well-versed in creating alternate online personas.
Another exchange is seen on a different girl's page, where she was propositioned with a stranger's question.
"Will you be mine?" an anonymous user asked, which elicited warnings from others who had received similar messages.
"Don't be his. I'm being serious. Say no to whatever he says."
"He's 18 and creepy. He claims he owns you. Don't talk to him."
The unwanted attention persisted.
"I will tell you everything if you just talk to me."
"No, please stop talking to me. I don't know who you are and I don't want you to talk to me."
This teen appropriately turned down these advances, but many more Ask.fm users aren't as attentive to what they share about themselves via social media. Others post everything from telephone numbers and personal videos to links to their Facebook pages.
Superintendent Tom Hosler sent a warning to parents about Ask.fm this week, stating: "District staff have investigated it and found it to be highly objectionable and could very easily become an environment for cyber bullying. While we can block this site on-campus and even off-campus for school-issued computers, we wanted to make sure parents are aware of the mobile app and web site."
Hosler estimates the problem to exist somewhat within the high-school and elementary levels, mostly with junior high-age children. It came to his attention from a parent, thanks to the partnership dynamic between families and school officials, he said.
Before the Internet, students passed embarrassing notes during class, but they weren't posted online for thousands to see, Hosler said. "That really changes the severity of the social impact.
"There are instances where that creates a forum that can spawn a lot of hate, a lot of bigotry. And I think there's been a connection to violence and possibly suicide that resulted and possibly stemmed from having such a public forum."
The school's digital filter now blocks Ask.fm from district computers and networks, and bullying remains a focus with students of all ages. A film called "The Bully Project" was shown to freshmen and sophomores this year, and the school has instituted the "digital driver's license," an instructional program that teaches the do's and don't's of using the Internet and social media. Perrysburg also added the Olweus Bullying Prevention Program, which helps create a consistent response to incidents reported at school.
"As we've put this program in place, we have more kids that are aware of more forms of bullying," Hosler said. "So we're hearing about more instances, but that's a good thing. We want to hear about them before they escalate."
Kristen Rodzos learned about Ask.fm last summer, later discovering her eighth-grade daughter was among its users. She had chosen an iPhone for her daughter because of its settings that can limit many functions, like only allowing apps designed for children at least 12 years old.
But Ask.fm is listed as appropriate because its mature content is user-generated and not programmed into the app. Its description indicates only "infrequent/mild" sexual and mature content and nudity.
"If I hadn't kept looking at her phone, I wouldn't have seen it," she said.
"I certainly thought it was harmless."
Now, Rodzos has further control of the phone, requiring her password for any downloads, and she's urging more parents to pay similar attention to their own children. She said her daughter didn't like turning over the phone, but didn't react with anger to the supervision.
"We have the power as parents to be in control of what our kids are doing," Rodzos said.
"The most important thing is for people to know about it."