Nancy Remondi was an ASL middle school teacher from 1998-2005; she is now a middle school guidance counselor at Hong Kong International School (HKIS). With her permission, I'm posting the text of an email she recently sent to the parents at her school. There are a number of middle school students here at ASL who have ask.fm accounts, so this information should prove useful for many parents here.
Ask.fm - Something to KNOW about and ASK your teen about by Nancy Remondi, Middle School Counselor, HKIS
Recently in the Middle School, we are learning of the increasing popularity of ask.fm. Ask.fm is an anonymous question and answer website which is quickly attracting the attention of young adolescents around the globe. It allows anyone to post anonymous comments and questions to a person's profile. Due to its aspect of anonymity, ask.fm is unfortunately increasingly being used as a means to communicate abusive and bullying content.
In order to begin receiving questions and posting answers, users must create an account and provide a user name, their full name, email address and password. Users have the option of signing in using their Facebook or Twitter credentials, and are encouraged to share their profile on these social networking sites. After providing these basic details, users are then given the option of filling out more personal information such as date of birth, gender, location and a bio or short personal statement. Photos of the user can also be added.
Ask.fm operates a similar friend system to Twitter: users can choose to "follow" other users. However, unlike Twitter, a user can never find out who is following them and can only know the overall number of followers he/she has.
Ask.fm is highly integrated with Facebook which makes signing up even easier for young people, but it also means that they have the option of cross-posting the question they receive and the answers they give to their Facebook timelines. If the questions and answers are cross-posted, they appear to everyone on Facebook (depending on Facebook privacy settings, of course). This means that any information shared on ask.fm and even abusive, sexualized and bullying content would be showcased to an even larger audience on Facebook ("Ask.fm: A Guide for Parents and Teachers." Webwise, 30 May 2013. www.webwise.ie/AskfmGuide.shtm).
As adults, it may be difficult for us to understand why adolescents would provide information to anonymous persons, particularly personal and private information. Questions we have seen on ask.fm range from innocent ones such as "What's the last thing you ate?" to the more inappropriate, "Who do you think is the most popular girl/boy in "x" House?" or "Who do you like?"
We know that due to their developmental stage, many adolescents are focused on their peers, how they fit in, and their social lives in general. Ask.fm is providing a platform to find out information without revealing themselves to others. It's so easy to give away information when you are not face-to-face to the person asking. It's also so tempting to ask questions you would never dare ask face to face.
So what do we do as adults? Ask. Yes, ironically, we need to ask some questions:
1) Ask your child if he or she is using the site. If so, have them explain it to you by showing you the site. If they aren't using ask.fm, ask them if they have heard of it, and if they know kids who are using it. Chances are they have and do.
2) Ask why they feel the necessity to give away information to someone who won't identify him/herself? This is an opportunity to discuss the importance and sanctity of privacy. We do not owe anyone information just because they simply asked, especially someone who won't identify him/herself.
3) Ask why they feel they have the right to ask others questions without identifying themselves. Sure, it is easier to ask questions anonymously, but bring up the fact that there is also an element of cowardice to the gesture. Could it be that the question is inappropriate and that is why it's safer to hide behind one's anonymity? Is it a question they would feel confident asking to a person's face?
4) Ask them to T.H.I.N.K.! Ask if the content they share is True? Helpful? Inspiring? Necessary? Kind?
5) Ask them if they would show their grandmother their activity on ask.fm. This question has become a popular and common question to young adults with regards to their digital citizenship. If they would be comfortable having whatever they post online read by their grandparent, chances are the content is fine.
We mustn't forget that while adolescents may be considered digital natives, they are not digital experts. They still need our guidance in using social media in a responsible way. In particular, they need help in navigating the important life issues regarding the right to privacy and the importance of one's integrity. It is in these domains where our life experience as adults is so critically valuable.