SAN FRANCISCO – On Ask.fm, millions of American teens talk about their hookups, struggles to get good grades and wild weekend parties, with no parents or adults to peer over their shoulders.
Some also use the social network to anonymously torment other teens.
With its popularity soaring in middle schools and high schools across the United States, Ask.fm is coming under attack from parents, politicians and privacy watchdog groups. It has been linked to the suicides of four teens in Britain and Ireland and one in the United States.
Sandy Cowles, a former teacher and stay-at-home mother of three from Irvine, Calif., said her teenage daughter was bullied on Ask.fm, which lets users anonymously ask one another questions. “People hide behind a computer screen, and there is no accountability whatsoever,” she said. “You think using Facebook is bad? For teens, this is a feeding frenzy in shark-infested waters without a cage. You have chum all over the place, and you are dropped right in the middle.”
Monday, the Latvia-based operator of the website said it would make it easier to report online bullying and harassment. It also plans to let users opt out of receiving anonymous questions and will hire more staff – including a safety officer – to moderate comments on the site.
The pledge came as parents and politicians accused the website and others like it of not doing enough to prevent anonymous abuse of vulnerable teens.
British Prime Minister David Cameron has called on websites such as Ask.fm to “step up to the plate and show some responsibility.”
The website, already hugely popular in Europe, entered the spotlight in the United States last week when Hannah Anderson, 16, barely 48 hours after being rescued in the Idaho wilderness, logged on to Ask.fm using the name Hannahbanana722 to candidly share details of her ordeal.
In answering questions from Ask.fm users, Hannah, who had been kidnapped and held for six days, explained why she did not try to alert people she encountered on horseback that James Lee DiMaggio, 40, was holding her against her will. (She said she feared he would kill them.)
When asked whether she would have preferred that DiMaggio, who was shot and killed by FBI agents during the rescue operation, spend his life in prison instead, she wrote: “He deserved what he got.” She has since deleted the account.
Hemanshu Nigam, chief executive of SSP Blue, an online safety consulting firm in Los Angeles, said growing numbers of teens are gravitating to Ask.fm.
“Middle school kids are picking up on it, and they are taking stuff they were doing on other sites and moving to Ask.fm because it’s the new and cool thing right now,” said Nigam, the former chief security officer of Myspace and a father of four. “What they are promoting is anonymity, and that allows people to ask really nasty questions or answer questions with really nasty answers. It’s really digital bullying for the 21st century.”
British authorities are investigating the deaths of two teens in recent weeks as possible cases of online bullying, urging parents and service providers to strictly monitor websites, used by young people, for abusive behavior.
Hannah Smith, 14, committed suicide this month. She had received abusive messages from Ask.fm users such as “drink bleach,” “go get cancer” and “go die.”
Smith’s father, David, told British television that he blamed his daughter’s death on Ask.fm and on authorities for not monitoring such sites more carefully. He called for filing criminal charges against the website operators.
Ask.fm, was launched in 2010 and is not the first social network accused of doing too little to shield teens. Advertisers fled Myspace as it faced criticism over a cyberbullying case, helping accelerate its downfall. Facebook and its photo-sharing service Instagram have fielded complaints from parents trying to protect children from online harassment.
The number of U.S. visitors to Ask.fm leaped to 6.3 million in July from 3.7 million in June, according to research firm ComScore.
Maryland Attorney General Douglas Gansler has urged advertisers to boycott Ask.fm. The site requires users to be at least 13, but younger kids lie about their age to use it.
In December, Jessica Laney,16, from Florida, was found dead in her home after being bullied on Ask.fm. One user had asked, “can you kill yourself already?” Others had called her “fat” and “a loser.”
In speaking to technology blog TechCrunch in July, Ask.fm Chief Executive and founder Ilja Terebin admitted that the rapid growth of Ask.fm had made it difficult for the company to “control everything.”