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."
Last month, Ask.fm officials announced that changes would be made to Ask.fm in response to the cyberbullying controversy. Included in those changes are an increased team of content moderators and higher visibility to the site's features that allow users to report bullying and opt out of anonymous comments.
"We are committed to doing everything we can to protect our users and stamp out bullying or any other kind of abuse," Ask.fm spokesman Ross Hall said in an email to the Deseret News. "Sadly, bullying can take place anywhere — on or offline — so it is important we, parents and users work together to fight it."
Hall said the company was also in the process of hiring a safety officer so that reports of inappropriate behavior made on the site are investigated and dealt with within 24 hours.
"If a user sees something that isn’t appropriate before we do, we would ask that they help us stand up to bullies by reporting it," Hall said. "Any complaints made about this kind of abuse are prioritized automatically and will be dealt with immediately."
Scherzinger said one of the challenges with cyberbullying is that it's a behavior that exists independent of any particular website. Anything that allows users to generate content online, from social networking sites like Facebook to blogs or online comment boards, can potentially be used to spread hurtful language about another person.
She compared social networking to the mythological Hydra, where you work to educate parents and students about the dangers of a website only to see three more rise up in its place.
So what can be done?
"If we can have the conversation with kids to be respectful, to have empathy, to celebrate everyone’s diversity, if we can have that conversation it doesn’t matter what media comes because there will be another one next month," Scherzinger said.
She also said that bullying obviously pre-dates the Internet, but where gossiping and hurtful language once relied on human interaction to spread, a single post on a popular website can be seen by an entire student body instantaneously.
The consequences of that enhanced distribution are much higher, Scherzinger said, and many students simply don't comprehend those consequences and don't realize they're behavior is potentially prosecutable.
"I think the earlier we’re putting this technology into children’s hands, that’s as early and with as much force as we need to teach them how to use it," she said.
Carrie Jensen, associate director of Prevent Child Abuse Utah, said it's hard to say whether cyberbullying is increasing or decreasing, since it is up to victims to self-report and because occurrence varies in different school districts and individual schools.
But she said unlike traditional bullying that many parents may remember from their youth, today's cyberbullying doesn't end when a student returns home at the end of a school day.
"That child that is being bullied can never escape from it," Jensen said. "It’s more prevalent in that way because there’s just more ways that a bully can access their victim."
Prevent Child Abuse Utah conducts in-school training for students on a number of topics, including Internet safety, and Jensen said their presentation includes the "Three R's" of cyberbullying: recognize, resist and report.
She said students need to recognize that cyberbullying is an unfortunate reality they need to protect themselves against and parents need to recognize that their children are using technology somewhere, whether that's at home, at school or at a friend's house. Students need to resist the attacks of bullies, by blocking their messages if possible, changing their account names or simply ignoring them.
"It’s like bullying in the real world, bullies want to get a response out of someone," she said. "Sometimes if you’re not even responding to that cyberbullying, that’s a protection for yourself."
And finally, she said, children need to report cyberbullying to a trusted adult, and parents shouldn't be afraid to report the attacks to school officials or law enforcement.
When asked about Ask.fm, Jensen said her organization is aware of the website, but so far it doesn't seem to have become ubiquitous among Utah teens.
"We teach in schools all the time and we haven’t heard a lot of kids familiar with it, which is probably a good thing," she said.
She said she didn't feel Ask.fm was more dangerous than websites like Facebook and Twitter — which have also been linked to cyberbullying and suicide in the past — but because it is new people may not be as familiar with it and the potential dangers of using it.
The 16-year-old Ask.fm user said she initially would respond to some of the hateful messages she received, but quickly learned that only egged on her attackers. Now, she said she simply deletes the messages from her profile after taking a picture to document what is being said.
She also said there's more to Ask.fm, and other social networking sites, than people who want to cause you pain. She said she still receives messages from friends and people who are genuinely interested in communicating with her, and said victims of bullying should focus on the positive, rather than the negative.
Her case is being investigated by school and law enforcement officials.
"I’ve learned through all this that I care more about what people who are nice to me say or think because they usually know me better anyway," she said.
Email: firstname.lastname@example.org Twitter: bjaminwood
Copyright 2015, Deseret News Publishing Company