This week I was interested in investigating another one of the ‘popular’ things that surfaced when I was completing my Pinterest board. Before completing this unit, I had never heard of the social networking site, Ask.fm, and I was curious to learn more about it when it kept re-appearing as something that was popular and used frequently among teenage cohorts.
If you’re like me and are not familiar with this new digital phenomenon, here is the low down: Ask.fm is a relatively new social networking site. It is essentially a question and answer site where users sign up and develop a profile page. The site allows users to ask questions to which anyone else on the site can respond to or answer. Users can also comment on and answer other users questions and pictures and videos are able to be shared. Users are supposed to be over 13 years of age to use the site and signing up is made easy via a Facebook page.
So what is all the hype about? Ask.fm is under a media attack for causing suicide among teens. The most recent case is that of 14 year old English school girl, Izzy Dix, who took her life after reportedly being bullied on Ask.fm. There are a number of other suicides that are controversially being linked to the site and Ask.fm is also being blamed for spurring gang wars. The seriousness of this case was drummed home for me after speaking to my sister, a youth social worker who is involved with a number of schools in the local region. She reported that she has dealt with a number of serious cases over the past six months relating to students who have been cyberbullied through the Ask.fm site. I therefore felt this to be something that was ‘alive’ in my region and a trend that I should be aware of.
Ask.fm has been criticised for its privacy settings – or more specifically its lack of privacy settings and poor identity control. It allows for anonymous posting – so it seems the most damaging part is the hate, death threats and just plain nasty messages that users can receive anonymously on their profile pages. This lack of accountability on the Internet appears to be bringing out the worst in users and it seems a case where anonymity is breeding faceless, malicious bullies. Ask.fm has announced that they will be changing their safety policy in the future. Their full statement can be found here.
Ask.fm shares some commonalities with other social networking sites, like Facebook and YouTube, in that it allows users to construct an identity or presentation of self in a very public way. Balick (2013) reminds us of the way that SNS’s offer opportunities for self-discovery and suggests that ‘online identity formation can be a way in which young people thoughtfully engage in the possibilities available to them’ (p.134). It is, in a way, a form of ‘identity testing’ (Balick 2013, p.131) and for young people, having a a space to enact and test out aspects of self is an important task in life (Balick 2013).
While Ask.fm and other SNS’s can be a way for youth to enact powerful identity play, what can become somewhat problematic is the cost of social judgement and validation associated with these sites. Uses and gratifications research suggests that one of the major categories of motivation relating to people’s media use is ‘personal identity/social utility (ie to strengthen contact with others, to overcome loneliness, to form one’s identity)’ (Calvert & Wilson, p.64). It comes as no surprise then that adolescents use SNS’s to satisfy strong social and emotional needs and in relation to Ask.fm, Davies (2013) suggests that ‘on a very basic level…it is a popularity competition, with those using it desperately looking for approval’. Wilcox and Stephen (in Balick 2013) confirm this assertion as they state ‘when adolescents receive positive feedback on their social network profile, it enhances their self esteem and well being’ (p.74). Furthermore, Balick (2013) reminds us of the power of peer pressure as a powerful form of social influence that extends across both online and offline contexts. ‘If you care about what other people think of you…then you might go along with the crowd to avoid their wrath or curry their favor’ (Balick 2013, p.77). With all of this at stake, managing one’s online and offline identity becomes a complicated affair and one that youth are heavily invested in. The social influence on these sites and their effects are immense.
I feel that this emphasises the need for adolescents to navigate these spaces critically and to engage in positive identity play. I feel there is a role for educators here, to ensure youth are not only engaging with media ethically and responsibly, but that they are aware of their role as empowered subjects to write their own identities and create their own histories. Social networking sites do open up children’s identity play to a networked publics and expose them to peer and pubic scrutiny. Youth need to understand the repercussions of this and they need to be guided to make choices and decisions that yield positive results in terms of how they represent themselves online.
What is interesting in relation to the Ask.fm saga and the case of Izzy Dix, is the way in which Dix’s friends have been proactive in developing an anti-bullying and anti-Ask FM stance in response to the teens death. They have set up a Facebook memoir page that calls for a stand against bullying and have also publicly encouraged users to cancel their Ask.fm accounts in protest against the social website. For them, social media has allowed a voice for change. Rather than being passive or accepting of the situation, they have capitalised on the transformative potential of the medium. As Sandberg (in Balick 2013) states, ‘the strength of social media is that it empowers individuals to amplify and broadcast their voices. The truer that voice, the louder it will sound and the farther it will reach’ (p.76). Education can encourage youth to harness the transformative rather than the harmful potential of digital media so that they impact their lives and the lives of others for the better.
Balick, A. (2013). The Psychodynamics of Social Networking: Connected-up Instantaneous Culture and the Self. Karnac Books: London.
Calvert, S. & Wilson, J. (Eds.) (2008). The Handbook of Children, Media and Development. Blackwell Publishing: United Kingdom.
Davies, B. (2013). My sickening trawl through the website go back to where slit yourself children are trolled to death. Daily Mail. 8 August. London, UK.