30 years ago parents checked under mattresses for inappropriate magazines. 15 years ago parents started to take a sneaky look at their child’s text messages and mobile phones were banned in classrooms. 10 years ago we started to track internet browser history and block websites deemed to be unsuitable. Our methods of safeguarding our children have adapted with the technological advancements of our time, that is, until now.
The development of new social media sites and chat tools, along with the widespread use of smart phones and tablets has led to creation of a world unfamiliar and even unknown to most adults. Some may automatically conjure up images of Facebook and scoff at my assumption that you are not aware of the evils of this worldwide phenomenon. You may be shocked to discover that I am actually a supporter of Facebook and believe it can be used constructively in teaching and pastoral care practice. Facebook is not the concern. In fact, Facebook is the least of our worries.
A new social media website has suddenly become very popular with students. “Ask.fm” is a question and answer social media site developed in Latvia in 2010. Similar to Facebook, it requires students to create a profile using their full name and select a profile picture to be displayed on their page. Anyone can then ask the page owner questions, similar to the “comment” feature in Facebook. Unlike Facebook, there is no option for increased privacy settings, no way to report offensive material and even more dangerously, the questions posed by others are completely anonymous. (Daily Mail: http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-2261588/Ask-fm-Pupils-parents-warned-social-networking-website-linked-teen-abuse.html)
Although the user has some control over the information that is posted to the page, as questions are only published when answered by the page owner, there is no way to stop anyone in the world posing questions no way to block a user. The alarming safety concerns associated with the open-nature of profiles and the anonymity of those asking questions are obvious.
Years of education of students about online bullying, and implementation of strategies to prevent it, are immaterial when suddenly the perpetrators become faceless and nameless to the victim. Without the possibility of being identified, the consequences of bullying become irrelevant and the door is opened to a tirade of degrading and devastating comments directed to a student.
Of course, the obvious answer is for the victim to delete the account. However, we all know the empowerment, maturity and confidence needed for students to make the decision to cut themselves off from a popular activity are often the traits that are most underdeveloped in those who are most vulnerable to bullying.
If you look at the “Ask.fm” profile of an older student, you realise that exploration of highly sexual ideas form the basis of most comments. Again, the anonymity of the questioner is the catalyst for the level of inappropriateness of the discussions. What is even more concerning is that such comments are not necessarily made by students of the same age as the user and are nor are they exclusively acquaintances of the user. The site has opened a brand new entry for the very individuals we have been working so hard to protect our children from since the invention of the internet. Cyber-stalkers and cyber-casers and those with more evil intent have a new vehicle to harass and groom our children and they will thrive on the sexual nature of comments on profiles. There is no control over who views profiles or interacts with users.
The dangers are clear. How we deal with this website and similar social media sites is not so obvious. Our students have grown up hearing of the dangers of the internet, have been told to ensure they avoid detailing locations in profiles, do not post pictures which identify home addresses or school identity and even more importantly, block inappropriate users from their sites. “Ask.fm” offers no such controls for the user and despite, or perhaps as a result of all our advice and education, students seem desensitised to the perils of the internet. Clearly, we need a new strategy and this strategy involves appealing to the egotistical nature of this generation of students.
Scare tactics do not work. Explaining the damage students can do to their reputation now and in the future does.
Students need to be aware of the ease with which these profiles can be found. A simple Google search of the student’s name will find their Ask.fm site, which can be then be accessed and all content read. For a quicker location of the profile, simply Google Ask.fm and include their full name in your search. Ironically, a student appears more than happy for the rest of the world to see their profile, but if their teacher or parents can see their “private” information, they will quickly disable the site.
Older students must be reminded to consider their desired futures and the consequences of creating a readily accessible, and often indelible digital footprint. Employers, family members, university entrance selectors and even future romantic partners can access the information. The potential for future embarrassment and career impediment can be a strong motivator in having students to disable the profile or, at bare minimum, better regulate the content.
Naturally, Ask.fm is not the only site of this nature and in true internet fashion, as soon as this site becomes unpopular, another will be created with a different set of concerns attached to it. SNAP chat and KICK are two such sites worth investigating.
The point to be made is that we as teachers and parents must be involved in social media developments. If we ourselves are not aware of such sites, how can we possibly monitor those we strive to protect? Schools must ensure specific people are charged with tracking popular internet culture so that problem sites can be identified and the spread of popularity contained quickly.
Reputation and image are the focus of a young person’s life. Whether that is morally right or wrong can be discussed in depth, but for now we need to realise we can harness this attitude for good. We can appeal to their narcissism and encourage students to be selective of their internet use and begin to consider their digital footprint when they post information on social media sites. We need to encourage students to reflect on the image they are creating for themselves and realise the persistence of the reputation associated with social media profiles. We must use what motivates students and we must reinvent our strategies for safeguarding our children. Blocking websites and monitoring history is no longer sufficient.
Where to from here? First step, Google your students’ name and show them what you are able to find!