“Wait, why are you alive?”
“Fun fact: no-body likes you.”
It might be hard to imagine how somebody could say these things to another, but insults like these are submitted to social media sites targeting teenagers every day.
The increasing use of online social media has given cyberbullying a platform to become one of the scariest, and most common issues teens face today.
According to a 2011 Pew Internet and American Life Survey, 43 percent of teens report that they experienced some sort of cyberbullying in the past year.
“We define cyberbullying as willful and repeated harm inflicted through the use of social media and cell-phones,” said Dr. Justin Patchin, the Co-Director of the Cyberbullying Research Center in Wisconsin.
However, cyberbullying may not occur as often on more traditional and well-known forms of social media like Facebook or Twitter.
In 2013, a social media website called Ask.fm was loosely linked to the suicides of 13 people worldwide, the youngest a 12-year-old girl from Florida. A United Kingdom group called the Izzy Dix Anti Bullying Memorial group has launched an online petition to shut down the Ask.fm and lists the names and ages of the boys and girls who committed suicide due to bullying, including cyberbullying.
Ask.fm is a social media site that allows users to set up an online profile that guests may visit and publicly comment on. Users may post questions to the profile anonymously and users can use the page to submit comments and questions.
“Everyone has one,” said Scotts Valley High School junior Taylor Raymond. “I like looking at other people’s accounts and hearing what people have to say about me.”
SVHS senior Lizzie Torrez, sophomore Matt Braverman and freshman Bella Bustichi all said they set up accounts on Ask.fm because they were bored.
Yet, when teens open these accounts, the response is rarely positive.
“Even if there was a good comment, it was surrounded by negative comments,” said sophomore Tonijae Leonard.
When they did receive mean comments or questions, sophomore Emmy Koflanovich, junior Jasmine Hovey, and Torrez all said they could tell it came from either a specific person or group of people.
“I had a feeling I knew who it was from,” freshman Jasmine Tyler said. “But I was never sure because they were anonymous.”
Drawn to negativity
With constant abuse and a growing suicide rate, it raises the question of why teens choose to engage in such destructive websites.
“I think kids set up accounts like Ask.fm because they are insecure,” said senior Jessie Labrie, who does not have an Ask.fm account. “Downloading Ask.fm is a very dangerous path, and a lot of the users aren’t capable of dealing with the consequences.”
Some users crave attention.
“Sometimes they feel like it’s better to be seen, even if it’s in a negative light,” said Scotts Valley High Vice Principal Michael Hanson. “Everyone has a fear of being irrelevant. Nobody wants to be invisible.”
Whether boredom or personal insecurities cause young people to sign up for accounts, users all run the risk of being harassed online.
According to the Cyberbullying Research Center, children who are cyberbullying victims are twice as likely to commit suicide then those who do not endure such bullying.
Bullying in person and cyberbullying differ in the sense that cyberbullying victims often cannot escape the taunting, even at home.
“Cyberbullying is fundamentally different because our smart-phones are carried with us everywhere,” Hanson said.
What can be done?
According to the Pew Teens and Technology 2013 survey, 93 percent of teens have a computer or access to one at home and 37 percent of teenagers own a smart-phone.
With the vast majority of teens having easy access to the major enabling agent of cyber-bullying, the Internet, teens witness cyberbullying on many of the social media websites they have accounts on.
“Cyberbullying occurs on every social media website,” Labrie, a senior, said. “As technology and the internet progress, it seems more and more of these “Ask” websites are appearing and, in my opinion, it needs to be taken very seriously.”
Parents and influential people in young people’s lives can make a difference.
“There’s this attitude that ‘Oh, they’re just kids in high school. This is what they do.’ But it’s that attitude that allows the problem to perpetuate through generations,” Hanson said.
Parents may find it frustrating, hard or awkward to talk with their kids about what they do online, but Patchin of the Cyberbullying Research Center says his research has found that it’s crucial that parents are open and initiate conversation with their kids.
“It is important that it is discussed at home, as well as a policy being in place at schools,”
Scotts Valley High School has blocked Ask.fm, Instagram and Facebook from the school’s wireless internet so that students may not access those sites while connected at school.
“I wish we had classes that promoted kindness,” Hovey, a junior said. “In health class, we barely gloss over bullying. We need classes that educate children about bullying and teach them to be kind.”
Out of eight Ask.fm users that were interviewed for this article, all eight said that they believed Ask.fm enabled and permitted cyberbullying.
Only two of them have deactivated their accounts.
“Every once in a while someone’s nice and will compliment you,” Tyler, a freshman said.
Torrez, a senior, deactivated her account after a friend answered a hurtful Ask.fm question. However, Torrez said she was sometimes able to help people through the website.
“A lot of people would ask me for advice,” Torrez said. “So it was nice to be a mentor, in that sense. I don’t think a lot of people would have come to me asking for help without the anonymity.”
After multiple reported cases of suicide that have been loosely linked to comments on the site, Ask.fm has begun to change their policies. Starting in October 2013 the site planned to make the report button for bullying more visible. Additionally, the option to opt out of receiving anonymous questions became more accessible for its users.
“At Ask.fm we want our users to be able to have fun, share information, make friends and express themselves freely. We also want them - particularly our younger users - to be able to do this in a safe environment,” Ask.fm’s representatives said in a statement made in August.
Ask.fm also stated that they planned to hire more staff, including a safety officer.
“I think websites like this will always exist,” Labrie, a senior said. “As soon as Ask gets shut down there will be something to replace it. I think the best solution is educating teens and providing them with help resources for things like depression.”
It is very important that anyone who is being harassed or bullied online does not retaliate, Patchin said, and he also suggests victims keep all evidence to show to adults they trust, and possibly, law officials.
For parents who would like to learn more about their role in preventing cyberbullying, visit www.cyberbullying.us/resources/parents.
Cyberbullying victims may visit www.cyberbullying.us/resources/teens or call a cyberbully hotline at 1-800-420-1479.