Alongside the micro-blogging sites Tumblr and Spillit, it is one of the social media platforms du jour of Irish teenagers.
Preying upon teenagers’ fragile sense of identity and desperate need to fit in, it is the space, say its marketeers, where “you can find out what people want to know about you”.
Anybody signed on to Askfm can ask any question of another user or post a comment about him or her — benign teen questions range from ‘if you had €5 left in your pocket, what would you spend it on?’ to ‘what song represents your life so far?’.
Spillit is similar, imploring you to sign up so people can ‘spill why they like you’. It doesn’t take a social media analyst to predict that many people would rather ‘spill why they hate you’ or just post sexually explicit comments.
That Ask and Spillit users can post anonymously is the biggest incitement to bullying.
I spoke to 20 teenagers about cyberbullying. Ask and Spillit were repeatedly named as the sites or platforms most conducive to cyberbullying or ‘hate’.
“A lot of it comes from the anonymous settings on the three, Ask, Spillit and Tumblr. You might get 10 really good comments or questions and then the 11th is bad and it ruins it,” said one 15-year-old.
The suicide, at the end of September, of 15-year-old Leitrim girl, Ciara Pugsley, dramatically showed where cyberbullying can end if the victim can’t cope with the onslaught.
Ciara’s death has been directly attributed by her family to the ‘hate’ she received on the Askfm website.
The majority of the teenagers I met had experienced online bullying. None of them admitted it had a hugely negative effect on them, but, especially for boys, there was a macho expectation that you ‘brush it off’ and ‘act like you don’t care’. There is also a pack mentality on FaceBook, Ask or Spillit.
“You’ll give it back to them if you see them posting hate on your friend’s Ask. You’ll post stuff telling them to fuck off back into whatever shithole they’ve crawled out of, that kind of thing,” said another 16-year-old.
But what of the more isolated teenager, who doesn’t have a band of buddies to stand his or her ground?
Or what of the kid who is secretly battling depression and low self-esteem, and really will believe that ‘u is so ugly, u should go kill urself’, as was posted on one random Ask.fm profile that we clicked on yesterday. ‘Wrld be better off without animals like u. U ugly freak’ was the next comment posed by the anonymous source.
“I got stuff like ‘you are so stupid’. Then ‘you are so ugly’,” said one girl. “I got “you are so fat you should lock yourself away’,” said another 16-year-old. “Then, they kept telling me to stop eating, to starve myself. Yeah, it was totally embarrassing”.
Online bullying is public humiliation on a grand scale. It’s far more degrading than being whispered at, or spat at, as you put your school books in your locker on the way home.
If you’re getting hate: all your class see it, the entire school population sees it, the girl who lives down the road sees it, that hot guy who works in the local shop can see it.
People talk of a 1% rule on the internet: for every one person creating content online, another 99 view it.
“Yeah, sometimes you might get these looks off people in school and you’ll know they’ve read something on your profile,” said one 16-year-old.
One girl said a friend who was into horse riding was repeatedly called ‘horseface’ by bullies online. That might sound innocuous, but imagine the cringe factor when it is unrelenting and everyone knows.
Repeated academic studies have also shown how cyberbullying is dangerous for teenagers as social media is “where they forge their identity”.
“For some people, hate is the purpose of them being on Facebook … to annoy you ... calling names,” said her friend.
“People always comment on your face on your profile pic. You just know that will happen”.
Anytime the teenagers post anything on a social media site, they are 100% aware that it will be “judged”.
“People judge you on social media all the time. That’s why I like Tumblr, as they judge you less. It’s more creative,” said one fifth-year student.
“There are girls who change their profile pics a lot, as they want to look good, and then they’ll just be told they are vain. There is no winning with them people”.
For boys, it’s the gay slur: “They’ll call you faggot, and stuff, and say that you are with some guy that people really know is gay”.
Gay-hate is routine for teenage boys who have come out to their friends. “One of our friends who is gay got ‘if you were my son, I’d disown you’. It’s just the same as years ago, when my nana got a brick through the door as my uncle is gay,” one of the girls said.
“I’ve been told I’m a slut, that I’ve had sex with everyone in town. You can be told you were the worst they were ever with. All anonymous,” one fifth-year student said.
“I’m black and I was told ‘you’re a freak of nature’. I talk a lot and so another time it was ‘stop talking verbal diarrhoea’.
“I was told that the world would be better if I didn’t exist,” said one girl. “They can also name you and write crap about you on their status page. It’s stupid, but it hurts”.
“There was one girl,” said a 15-year-old “and she said I was a lesbian. I’m not. She was telling me to go and die, go kill myself. It was a girl that really liked me and I didn’t like her back. I knew it was her. But hate can really cut people off. I went off Askfm after that”.
Cursory glances at Ask or Spillit, or any of the FaceBook pages that you can access, show highly sexualised comments, To threaten to rape someone is not uncommon. “I’m going to shag the arse of you, whether you like it or not, you stupid bitch,” was one such comment on one of the first AskFm pages I accessed.
“People ‘do hate’ to get popular. They do it to become popular. Sometimes, they’ll do it to play a joke on someone. If you’re mean, you’ll get more popular,” said the boys.
Cyberbullys are often not lone rangers, either.
“You can get a group of popular people bullying one person, and you’ll see an unpopular kid doing it to try to get in with the popular group. Other people jump on the bandwagon,” one 15-year-old boy said.
The web has also long been recognised as a place where people can forge new identities, whether its through an avatar or by being anonymous. The kid who has been bullied all his life can very often turn bully online.
“People are a lot braver on a keyboard, as well.
“They are people out there writing hate that they would never say to somebody’s face,” said his friend.
“Girls might be jealous of a girl and they’ll write stuff about her. They’ll post that she’s ugly,” said one 16-year-old. All around her, her friends nodded.
“Sometimes it’s done out of jealousy but they also love to put people down. Girls get hate worse than boys,” said one of the 15-year-old boys. Again, his friends nodded.
“Sometimes it’s done for a joke,” said another girl. “Some hate can be really creative”.
“Girls, they also get more hurt by it,” said a 15-year-old boy. His friends nod. “They’re more sensitive. They also care more about their image and they put themselves down,” said another. “Boys don’t really care. I think you can tell too if it’s the same person saying all the same stuff”.
Time and time again, the boys spoke about how girls leave themselves open to being hurt by divulging so much online.
Even among girls themselves, they refer to ‘attention whores’.
One 16-year-old girl openly admitted that she changes her FaceBook status depending on her emotions.
“Yeah, people think you’re an attention whore if you say you’re sad, but I have met really good friends on social media and Tumblr. Suicide isn’t taboo on tumblr. They don’t judge you. They might say ‘don’t do it’.”
“There’s one girl who I randomly friended on Tumblr. She lives in Turkey or Spain and she feels down all the time. She is getting so much support from people by talking about how she feels,” she said. “It allows her to connect with people, as others don’t get it at all”.
There are thousands of Tumblr sites where girls, in particular, show pictures of their self-harming. Just check out this blog post: “things are just getting worse for me. I cut tonight for the first time in months. It felt so good, I wanted to just keep going so bad. The deeper and harder I cut, the more I wanted to keep going, but I stopped. I started starving myself again too … I can’t help it but to fall back into old patterns, it just feels so safe, like I won’t hurt if I just keep doing it. I’m hardly there. Holding my head above the water is getting harder and harder … I need help before I break.”
“I get really worried about the stuff that some people put out there. If you’re talking on Ask or FaceBook about being sad or down all the time, you’re inviting bullies in. Some girls who use social media put their whole life and head up there and it’s crazy,” said one 15-year-old boy.
“Yeah, some girls use it as a diary and that’s OK when it’s people you know, but they make themselves wide open to hate, then, and it just gets worse for them,” a 15-year-old girl said.
“It scares me, sometimes, what will happen to some people in the end. They can send you really mean stuff, even if you’re not posting about depression and suicide. They have no idea what that person is going through”.
“You’ll go off the Askfm site for a while, deactivate your account. You can block people, too, or report people on Twitter, but nothing ever happens. School? There’s no real policy on it at school. The attitude is if it’s not happening in school, they don’t want to know”.
“You would never really admit that you can’t take it. People will think ‘get over it, it could be a lot worse, brush it under the table’ ,” said one 15-year-old boy.
“You just deactivate your account and set up another. I think there is less bullying on Twitter because you can easily block people”.
“If you go to the vice-principal, she won’t do anything, just maybe ask for names. They think it’s up to parents, but my parents won’t go near my pages as they know it’s my stuff, ” one of the boys said.
“You know what/ You learn lessons,” said one 15-year-old boy. “It’s not worth putting it up if you get crap afterwards. You can’t stop bullying, but now, before I hit ‘post’, I think about it. It’s not worth it”.
After the tragic death of Ciara Pugsley, there is a renewed realisation of where cyberbullying can end. Experts warn teenagers to be careful what they post online, but many don’t take heed. What do adults know? Teenagers think they can cope.
But even when they can’t cope, youth culture judges those who can’t cope and those who ‘rat up’. Teenagers believe teachers don’t want to know about cyberbullying as much of it occurs out of school and on home computers. Many teens fear recrimination if they fess’ up. It’s anonymous, so your nemesis could be someone in school, it could be someone you’ve never met, it could be someone you thought was a friend.
Many teens who are bullied fear their parents will take their phones off them or crack down on their internet usage, something they routinely claim would ‘totally cut them off’. Such attitudes may not make sense to concerned adults, but to youngsters such fears are real.
* Tomorrow: read the experts’ advice.
SPECIAL REPORT DAY 1: ’Phoebe … I’m sorry ... for the unkind words I said ...’
SPECIAL REPORT DAY 1: ‘Everyone else is doing it and you do get good stuff’
* LETS TALK BULLYING: Buy the Irish Examiner booklet
* Anti-bullying centre in Trinity Colege Dublin
* The Department of Justice's Office for Internet Safety
* Webwise: Online collection of internet safety resources
* Cybertraining: Academic research on cyberbullying
* Internet Safety for Schools by UCC forensic psychologist, Dr Maureen Griffin