Welcome to Formspring.me, the newest social media site hot amongst teens, answering the questions that inquiring minds want to know. Just sign up for an account, search for people to follow, and ask them any question you want with complete anonymity if you choose.
If you haven’t heard of it, you’re not alone. The site launched just six months ago, but chances are your kids are some of the reported 50 million visitors to Formspring each month.
“It’s also kind of fun looking on friends’ pages to see what questions they’ve answered,” says eighth grader Sarah Stack. If you want more followers, simply link Formspring to your Twitter and Facebook accounts and invite all of your online pals to ask you a question. “If you can’t talk to someone on the phone or not with them, then you can ask questions and get an answer,” says ninth grader Anna Forte.
Seems innocent enough, but a growing number of parents fear Formspring is turning into cyberbully heaven, with threats of violence, questions about sex, and statements filled with hatred all too common. “Some of the bullying, it hurts the moms more than it hurts the kids, it’s just so painful to watch a child go through that. That’s very scary,” says Mom, Janet Forte.
We decided to follow a handful of teens from across the state to see what they were asking and found some posts too graphic to say out loud. “I wanna kill you so badly,” commented one teen; another “you look like a horse,” and “I hate you,”.
Best selling author of “Odd Girl Out” and “Curse of the Good Girl”, Rachel Simmons, says the site can be dangerous. By signing up, she says, you are inviting others to bash you with their honest opinions, often breathtaking cruelty or cyberbombs, as she calls them, that can launch the intended target into a frenzy, wondering who could have written it.
“Teenagers want to know what other thing of them and girls, especially, are always second-guessing each other. ‘Oh did she really mean it as a joke when she said that my shirt was too tight’. Formspring gives kids an opportunity to get the answer to the question, ‘what are people really thinking about me’ the problem is, kids are saying things they’d never say and it’s impossible to say if its really felt or just obnoxious remarks,” Simmons says.
While some girls can brush it off, like when someone questioned Anna Forte on the site, “someone said, ‘why do you think you’re so cool, when you’re really not,’ and it can be hurtful if you take it to heart so I didn’t take it too personally.” But for other kids, these kinds of cyber taunts can lead to depression, and worst case scenario, even suicide. Consider the recent headlines, some suspect vicious taunts on Formspring contributed to the suicide of a Long Island high school senior in March, although her parents reportedly deny postings on the site had anything to do with it.
Formspring does acknowledge cyberbullying exists on its site and has posted a number of community guidelines in order to stop it. They make clear, cyber bullying is a criminal offense, and the company will work with police to track down abusive accounts. The company also says if you post something objectionable, your account will be shut down.
Experts say, don’t wait for the company to shut your kids’ account down, it may be too late. Simmons says parents need to be aware of what their kids are up to online. Just type in your child’s name to see if they have an account. “If you are a kid that is fundamentally insecure, that has low self-esteem, that has very sad, destructive beliefs about herself, then logging into Formspring becomes a way to confirm that, and a kid who sees that day in and day out is going to be broken down inside, and that’s why every parent needs to talk to their child about this site, or go on to the website,” Simmons says.
So while Formspring may start out as a silly, innocent online game for some, it’s anything but silly for the person being written about.
WEIGH IN ON SARA'S BLOG:
FORMSPRING AND CYBERBULLIES
I only have 4 or so minutes during our newscast to tell you a story about the new social networking site Formspring.me and, to be honest, I could use an entire hour! (Click here to watch my story) So, I am posting this detailed interview with Formspring Co-Founder John Wechsler to give you more information about the company and his take on cyberbullying.
(Q) UNDERWOOD: What is the average users age?
(A) WECHSLER: Today, we're proud to say that we have a truly diverse set of users on our site. We have already had 135 million+ unique visitors at Formspring.me since we launched in late November 2009 - and we see incredible traffic daily from Brazil to the U.S. Our users span a large age range: 63% of our users are over 18 (with 31% between 35 to 49) and 24% are between 13-17.
(Numbers according to Quantcast).
Beyond our users' age or location, it's important to note the variety of uses we see on Formspring: from Rabbi Blake<http://www.formspring.me/rabbiblake>,
who answers questions on Judaism in the modern world, and Tom Brevoort<http://www.formspring.me/TomBrevoort>,
Executive Editor for Marvel Comics, who has answered hundreds of fan questions, and then a recently launched effort this week by Inside Costa Rica <http://www.formspring.me/insidecostarica> to answer questions on tourism and the country's history.**
(Q) UNDERWOOD: Is there a way you can get kicked off?
(A) WECHSLER: Absolutely. As with any community, we have clear guidelines we enforce. See here <http://www.formspring.me/site/guidelines>. We rely on our members to report abuse where they see it, and are currently staffing up a growing team of community support specialists who will help our users with questions and also ensure any issues or abuse are solved quickly.
(Q) UNDERWOOD: Do you worry about cyber bullying on your site....and what do you do to fight it off?
(A) WECHSLER: Of course. We are both aware of the issue and we are working hard to be a part of the solution on the social web. Cyber-bullying is a critical issue for our culture to come to grips with and we aim to be a constructive partner in curtailing it.
As with any community of millions of people, we are realistic about the fact that there will be cases of abuse involving the misuse of our platform by a small portion of our users. That said, it is important for us, and our business, to control and stop abuse whenever and wherever we can. We're working hard to educate our users on the realities of being online. For example, many assume (young and not so young alike) that because you can ask questions anonymously on Formspring, you can get away with illegal behavior.
This is simply not true, and when a situation calls for it, we work with local authorities to supply information including IP addresses, etc. to track down users who are in violation of the law. In some states, this can lead to arrest and serious consequences.
But, this is addressing a symptom. We're also working on developing long term partnerships which will connect us with educators, parents and other leaders that will help us get to the root of the issue which is a cultural one. We believe that the more good examples teens see, and the more guidance and open lines of communication they have, the less we will see this form of abuse. At the end of the day, we firmly believe that the vast majority of our users are on our site to have fun, learn about the people and the topics they care about, and to connect with people in a meaningful way. Our objective is to make these connections easier and more interactive, and part of this means rooting out abuse and inappropriate behavior.