Parenting

New “question and answer” social media websites hotbed for sexual pressure, bullying and abuse

A new breed of social media websites is leaving young people open to cyber bullying, with anonymous users able to bombard others with sexually explicit messages and demands.

Despite limited mainstream media coverage, “question and answer” websites such as ask.fm, qooh.me and formspring.me have exploded in popularity. More than 29 million Formspring accounts have been created since its 2009 launch. The sites allow users to sign up for a profile, with a name and photograph. Others can then ask questions completely anonymously, some open to all, some directed to a specific profile. Users choose which questions to answer, with the option to “like” answers, and in some cases, to share them on well-known sites such as Facebook and Twitter.

The anonymity provided by the sites has made them a hotbed for sexual pressure, bullying and abuse.

Browsing some of the sites for just a few minutes reveals a torrent of sexual demands, explicit questions and abusive threats to users whose photos suggest they are young teenage girls. Posts included: “You're a fat, ugly, worthless piece of s***. Please kill yourself,” “Can we have sex?” and “Wanna do it dirty?”

Just reading the terms and conditions and the FAQ on these sites gives an indication of the exposure risks regarding suicide and abuse.

A 13 year old girl was recently diagnosed with anorexia and depression, took an overdose and spent 11 weeks in a mental health unit. On her ask.fm profile, other users, many claiming to be from her school, had posted a string of aggressively sexual questions: “Have you ever sucked a d***?”; “Do you shave your pubes?”; “Bra size?”; “Can I bang you?” They call her “slut”, make sexual demands and threats and in one case, ask her to upload a video of “you cutting yourself”.

The frequency with which girls are referred to as 'sluts', 'whores' and 'slags' on these sites is unbelievable. Often boys in their peer groups seem to be behaving in aggressive and manipulative ways, coercing them to do things they didn't want to.

Many entries to the Everyday Sexism Project, which catalogues instances of sexism experienced by women on a day-to-day basis, refer to incidents of young people joking about rape and sexual violence without technology coming into play at all, such as boys aged 15 or 16, reported to have said “rape is a compliment really” in a classroom discussion.

Nick Batley, 22, a volunteer sex educator with Sexpression, said this lack of understanding about consent and sexual violence is common among young people, both on and offline. While working with pupils aged 11 to 15, one told him: “Girls have a reputation to uphold… boys are meant to break that”.

Vince Mabuza, the founder of qooh.me, said: “Cyber bullying is a huge problem on sites like qooh.me and the others. I have sleepless nights trying to come up with solutions to stop this . [But] shutting the site down won't help, because new ones will be created and the cycle will repeat itself. What we have done is to give users some control by allowing them to disable the anonymous part of the site.”

Some examples from ASK.FM

  • What are you wearing right now?
  • you single?
  • What bra size are you?
  • Who turns you on?
  • Who was the last person you kissed?
  • Would you do anything with a guy atm?
  • whats your fav part of urself?
  • Would you like to go on a date with someone you meet on the Internet?
  • how old are you ? :)?
  • Furthest youve been with a boy?
  • What body part do you wash first in the shower?
  • Why you so sexy?
  • Would you do friends with benefits?
  • how old were you when you had your first boyfriend?
  • Do you like short or long hair on someone of the opposite sex?
  • I was wondering, would you have one night stand?


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