RIGA - A Latvian-owned Web site has made international headlines recently as the Web site was blamed for being the catalyst in two Irish teenagers’ deaths. The Web site Ask.fm, founded and owned by five young Latvians, was blamed for being the site of cyber-bullying which led to the teenagers’ suicides in September and October.
The social networking site describes itself as “ask and answer.” People ask questions on another user’s profile, and the user replies. If you’re over 14, the purpose of this may seem baffling: it isn’t hugely different from the way many people use other platforms, like Twitter or Facebook, but one key difference explains its appeal to teenagers: the ability to ask questions anonymously.
While many questions are mundane (“What’s the funniest video you watched recently?” or “What is your favorite tea?”), others delve into more personal territory: “What kind of underwear are you wearing?” “Is your sister dating anyone?” “Have you had sex with your boyfriend?” It’s easy to see how such a tool might become the stuff of preteens’ dreams and nightmares.
In Ireland, two young teenagers’ suicides over the past two months have been attributed to stress over cyber-bullying on Ask.fm. Both girls, a 13-year-old and a 15-year-old from different areas of Ireland, were users of the Web site and allegedly bullied by schoolmates and others on the site. This follows a wave of similar stories over the past few years, many sensationalizing the stories and often emphasizing the youth and good looks of the victims, especially teenage girls. The September death of a Canadian teenager was a particularly extreme example, drawing a huge amount of media attention both in the country and internationally, creating a situation in which the girl’s previous bullies and others joined in to posthumously continue to taunt her online. Now the Latvian site has been pulled into the battle against online bullying and has caused parents, educators and others in Latvia to ask questions about bullying.
Founded in June 2010, the Web site initially took its idea from an American question-and-answer social networking site called Formspring. The Latvian founders, Mark Terebin, Oskars Liepins, Ilja Terebin, Klavs Sinka and Valerijs Vesnakovs admitted to taking the idea for Ask.fm from the American site in 2010, but with ideas for building a better platform and streamlining features. The Web site now boasts over 21 million users. With their recent success, the company is currently building a new office space in Riga and was recently looking online for new employees for a “dream job” with the company. Aiming to reach an international audience, the site is available in 31 different languages and allows users to log in through accounts on Facebook, Twitter, or Russian social network Vk.com; it’s popular with teens in Latvia, but also many other countries worldwide. Nearly half of Ask.fm’s users are under 18, with another 34 percent between 18 and 25, according to a March interview with Latvian daily Diena.
Company founders refuse to admit that the Web site has any responsibility in the children’s deaths. They have refused almost all media requests, though Mark Terebin gave a statement to Ireland’s national broadcaster RTE’s Frontline program in early October following the first girl’s suicide, in which he suggested that Irish and British teenagers are crueler and that this was the reason for the two deaths in Ireland.
Terebin commented last week on his own Ask.fm profile, when asked by a user why the founders refused to comment to the Irish press: “Mass media is knocking on wrong door [sic]. It is necessary to go deeper and to find a root of a problem...Ask.fm is just a tool which helps people to communicate with each other, same as any other social network, same as phone, same as piece of paper and pen. Don’t blame a tool, but try to make changes.”
Co-founder Klavs Sinka was more literary in his response to an inquiry on Ask.fm. “We created Ask.fm as an attractive way for people to communicate with each other. For several years, millions of people all around the world have happily used our product. From the beginning, we have tried to create tools with which to fight and prevent publishing of unwanted content on Ask.fm... However, despite all our efforts, we cannot completely prevent users from having a negative psychological impact on one another.”
Sinka suggested that parents keep a better eye on their children and brought up the phenomenon of an increased incidence of suicide following media publicization, referring to the so-called “Werther Syndrome,” in which a spate of suicides followed the publication of Goethe’s novel The Sorrows of Young Werther in the 18th century.
The company’s actions tell a different story, however. The company has left the two teenagers’ profiles active after their deaths. And one might ask what, exactly, the twenty-something founders expected from their Web site. By its nature, this type of anonymous forum encourages bullying. Ask.fm acts like an incognito game of truth-or-dare: teenagers will only be amused by anonymously asking each other their favorite ice cream flavors for so long before the questions turn more salacious. In response to an inquiry on the company’s Twitter page, the company said it would never reveal names, locations or IP addresses of anonymous users. Mark Terebin’s October statement to Irish television said, “There are no complaints regarding cyber-bulling from parents, children, or other sources in other countries,” however, one can find online that the Web site has elicited complaints and warnings from schools and parents across Europe and in North America.
The Web site also allows video responses, changing formerly empty comments like “show us your tits” into something where one might actually get a response. Latvian social media experts and employees interviewed in Diena blamed the anonymity of the site for its nefariousness, suggesting that the cover of anonymous posts let youth feel free to behave in ways they never would with their name behind them. The head of Latvia’s State Inspectorate for Protection of Children’s Rights Laila Rieksta-Riekstina commented that problems generally start at school and later move on to the Internet.
Diena warned parents to watch what their children get up to online. Following the deaths, parents in Latvian schools held a conference to discuss reducing bullying in schools, mentioning the Web site and the importance of educating children how to use the Internet safely.
For many teens, however, the answers seem clear. Teenagers in Ireland and elsewhere have called for the site to be taken down in the wake of the girls’ deaths and for users to delete their profiles out of respect; an online petition to take down the Web site has been started as well. The Irish Minister of Children and Youth Affairs Frances Fitzgerald has called on Latvian authorities to investigate and increase controls on the Web site.