This morning, a front page article in the New York Times highlighted the stunning ways in which kids are using formspring.me, a new social networking site that allows users to ask and post anonymous questions and comments about any individual. The point of the network is to be a forum for open dialogue without apprehension or fear of being identified. As the article shows, when put in the hands of kids and teens, unfiltered dialogue is exactly what's happening:
"While Formspring is still under the radar of many parents and guidance counselors, over the last two months it has become an obsession for thousands of teenagers nationwide, a place to trade comments and questions like: Are you still friends with julia? Why wasn't sam invited to lauren's party? You're not as hot as u think u are. Do you wear a d cup? You talk too much. You look stupid when you laugh. "
Formspring is a tool. And tools can be used to build or destroy. Theoretically, Formspring can be used to send cyber-love from person to person. But the anonymous nature of the commentary leads too often to cruelty. And online cruelty can quickly slip into cyberbullying. After the death of Phoebe Prince in South Hadley, Massachusetts, and Alexis Pilkington, 17, of Long Island - a victim whose case actually cites formspring.me as a source of the bullying that caused her to end her life - it is so hard to believe that this kind of harassment actually finds an online safe haven where it can thrive.
Formspring.me may not have been created as a site whose purpose is trades in hate and bullying, but that's clearly what it's capable of - and the site knows it. In the Help Center of the formspring.me site. they address the idea that they're providing a feeding ground for potential cyberbullying, but put they place the responsibility for reporting and monitoring content in the hands of the users, rather than their own. In other words, they're just a service, not responsible for the content. And in this Internet space, they are far from alone in their philosophy.
But for that philosophy to work, kids and adults must understand the implications of their actions. They must understand that cyberbullying is an immoral and destructive act. They must understand that they are responsible for the cyber-world they live in since they are populating its contents one post at a time. At Common Sense Media, we are dedicated to giving kids, parents, and teachers the information they need to raise a generation of kids who are responsible and respectful digital citizens. We are working with leaders in education, business, and industry to make education a reality for every kid, but we're still a long way off. Until that happens, it is the responsibility of sites like formspring.me to police themselves and help parents with the exceptionally difficult challenge of raising kids in a 24/7 digital world. And that means:
- Creating age gates to discourage teens from using the site
- Monitoring language and content more closely to identify users who may be harassing other users
- Establishing a proactive internal monitoring and reporting structure for inappropriate or bullying behavior and allow users to report such abuse to the formspring.me team itself
In the meantime, parents will continue to be the first line of defense for teens that are engaging in risky and bullying conversations on formspring.me
- Monitor their use. See what they're posting, check their mobile messages.
- Tell your kids what to do if they're harassed.
- If your kid is doing the bullying, establish strict consequences and stick to them.
- Remind them they aren't too old to ask for your help.
It is our hope that those in leadership at formspring.me will step up and accept the role and responsibility they have to keeping kids safe online, and preventing the needless loss of another young life at the hands of the misuse of technology.