SALT LAKE CITY — Most parents likely have never heard of Ask.fm, the Latvia-based social networking website that allows individuals to post anonymous questions and comments on a user's profile.
But the website, which is gaining popularity among teens in the U.S. and Utah, has been linked to suicides prompted by cyber-bullying, including the Sept. 10 death of a 12-year-old Florida girl who leapt from a platform after reportedly being bullied for more than a year by a group of older students.
Suicide is a leading cause of death among Utah teens, but no cases in the state have been linked to the website. A sampling of school district representatives contacted by the Deseret News said that while cyberbullying is an ongoing issue, there were very few, if any, reports made to school officials specifically about Ask.fm.
Students are aware of it and are using it. It was among the reasons a Roosevelt high school football coach suspended his entire team this past week, demanding better behavior from the teens in person and in cyberspace.
It's the website's liberal anonymity and privacy policies that make it stand out in an ever-growing list of social networking options, and already Utah students have found themselves the victim of heinous cyberbullying attacks on Ask.fm.
"They’ve told me to kill myself a couple of times," said a Utah 16-year-old, who spoke on condition her name not be shared. "The messages on Ask.fm are probably once or twice a week, but the bullying itself goes on every day."
The teen said she has been bullied by a group of girls at her school for more than a year: in person, via text and through websites like Facebook and Twitter. When she created her Ask.fm profile at the beginning of the summer, she said the harassment began almost immediately.
In addition to encouraging her to kill herself, she said the messages have told her that no one likes her at school, that everyone would be happier if she was dead and that her boyfriend deserves someone better.
She said she's often asked why she doesn't just delete her social media profiles. But she said it should be those who harass her who are punished and removed from sites.
"It’s not my fault that other people don’t know how to treat other people and I don’t think I should have to be the one who gives it up," she said.
The girl's mother said there's been a noticeable change in her daughter's personality since the bullying began. Her daughter's grades have suffered, she's been prescribed antidepressants by a therapist and the family has discussed home schooling.
"She was our outgoing, bubbly child and then with this she’s very withdrawn now," the girl's mother said. "She's changed user names, she's changed accounts, but they still find her."
Julie Scherzinger, a counselor at Sunset Ridge Middle School in West Jordan, said she has not received reports of bullying on ask.fm yet, but knows of students at her school who use the website.
"Facebook is not as popular anymore," she said. "It's mostly Twitter, Instagram or Ask.fm."
But she said what makes Ask.fm particularly troubling is its anonymous nature. Unlike Facebook, which requires a person's name and goes to lengths to delete artificial accounts, or even Twitter, which requires some form of username that can be blocked, Ask.fm users are subject to posts with absolutely no identifiers.
"They can just post whatever questions they want on there and it’s for anyone to see," Scherzinger said. "People say things that typically you wouldn’t say, even on the normal Internet."
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