RIGA - Ask.fm, the Latvian based social media site that came to prominence following the suicides of two Irish teenage girls, has come under severe scrutiny once again. Leitrim teen Ciara Pugsley (15) and Donegal schoolgirl Erin Gallagher (13) were both being bullied via Ask.fm Now the girls’ parents believe that it is time that this social networking site should be closed on a permanent basis.
Irish families reacted angrily to the response by the co-founder of Ask.fm, Mark Terebin, when questioned about these two tragic suicides. Terebin stated that, “we do understand the gravity of the situation, and I sympathize with Ciara Pugsley’s family.’’ Terebin continued, “Of course there is a problem with cyber bullying in social media. But as far as we can see we only have this problem in Ireland and in the United Kingdom most of all, trust me. There are no complaints regarding cyber bullying from parents, children or other sources in other countries. It seems that children are crueler in these countries (Ireland and the United Kingdom).”
Terebin told an Irish documentary film maker that his site was “just a tool which helps people to communicate with each other – the same as any other social network, the same as a phone, the same as a piece of paper and a pen.”
Contrary to Terebin’s remarks, during in an in-depth internet search, the documentary uncovered a wide number of complaints about Ask.fm from parents as well as education facilities across Northern Europe and America.
Ask.fm has also been named as a website of concern on a number of American Parenting Sites, and it is also named on several websites which encourage stricter regulation of social media in the United Kingdom, Ireland and America in particular.
Concerns have been raised in Ireland about the site’s anonymous nature, and parents were encouraged to check if their children were using the site and to strictly monitor their usage. Since Ciara Pugsley’s suicide, a massive online campaign has emerged in order to get Ask.fm closed down.
Speaking to a group of reporters, Ciara’s father, Jonathan Pugsley, said that he wouldn’t be in favor of closing such sites as another one would come in and replace it. Pugsley said that “there was a moral responsibility on sites such as Ask.fm to monitor and prevent bullying of any nature” and he stated that a judicial review was required to be set up to tackle the issue of cyber bullying.
Many countries already have strict legislation in place on bullying and stalking via social media, however, Ireland hasn’t been that pro-active. Pugsley said, “Ask.fm isn’t a nice site. It is not a nice site as it’s totally anonymous.”
Many experts have suggested that some methods of tracking those who persistently use social media sites to abuse others should be brought forward so that criminal charges could be brought against the perpetrators.
Blocking access to a Web site at the centre of controversy following the deaths of two teenage girls will not end cyber bullying and it could lead to similar sites being accessed instead, the Irish Ombudsman for Children, Emily Logan, has warned.
When asked if Irish children’s access to Ask.fm should be blocked, Logan said, “I don’t think that blocking one website is going to stop the issue. If anything it would possibly generate even more websites, if it creates the amount of attention that it is getting and rightfully so in terms of the association with cyber-bullying.”
According to Logan, “The nature of cyber bullying is hidden because it is pervasive in children’s lives. It doesn’t finish at the school door, it follows children home, which is why it is much more intense and much more upsetting.” The Minister for Children has admitted that given the “global and open nature of the internet,” it may be difficult to regulate the likes of Ask.fm.
The Irish Children’s Minister, Frances Fitzgerald, has admitted her concerns about the difficulties in regulating Web sites which are regularly used by Irish children who may be vulnerable to cyber-bullying.
Fitzgerald’s comments came after she requested that the Latvian authorities, where the popular social networking site Ask.fm is based and hosted, look into the “lack of safeguards” applied to the Web site, which is popular among teenage users in several countries, including Ireland.
Ask.fm offers users the ability to receive anonymous questions from other unregistered visitors to their pages, purportedly so that they can exchange anonymous messages with their friends who may not wish to attach their names to discreet inquiries. However, the site can also be used to send abusive messages to its users, to devastating effect.
The Minister admitted, however, that it may be difficult to apply any method of regulation to Ask.fm, “given the global and open nature of the internet.”
Minister Fitzgerald said she had also met in recent weeks with Facebook’s Policy Director for the UK and Ireland Simon Millner, to discuss features that can help children protect themselves against abuse through that Web site.
“I was impressed with the child-focused and user-friendly safeguards and supports which Facebook has put in place to protect children and respond to concerns over cyber-bullying and inappropriate online behavior,” she said, adding that she had arranged meetings between Facebook and the National Anti-Bullying Forum.
She admitted it was “a matter of concern,” however, that certain other Web sites popular among Irish teenagers do not include similar safeguards.
Meanwhile, an EU survey has shown that Irish parents are among the most restrictive in Europe when it comes to what their children do online.
The EU Kids Online study has found that 95 percent of parents in Ireland have set rules about what their children can and can’t do on the Internet.
But it’s warning this may limit young people’s ability to improve their online safety skills. The Head of the School of Media at the Dublin Institute of Technology, Brian O’Neill, is involved with the European Union Kids Online Project. He believes that Irish parents are too restrictive and simply banning a website many not always work.