When we were kids we knew who the bullies in the schoolyard were. They were the ‘mean girls’ who, as a result of pure flukes (they tended to be the prettiest, the richest, had the nicest clothes) felt that they could rule the school. Or conversely they were girls from the wrong side of the tracks who vented their anger by breaking the rules and picking on others. The boys who were bullies were often the strongest physically and used this fact to strike terror into other boys who were deemed weaklings or looked a bit different.
It is the kind of inexplicable pecking order which starts very early in childhood and can set the pattern for the rest of one’s life, unless a child is helped to cope with it (and here I’m talking of help for the bully as much as help for those who are bullied). As any psychologist will tell you, bullies are usually frustrated, extremely unhappy kids who act the way they do because of their own issues at home.
In any case, when we were young, bullies made their presence felt, and we gave them a wide berth, or stood up to them, or allowed them to bully us into submission, depending on what kind of coping skills we had. Bullying is an inevitable part of growing up which can either strengthen our character or plague us the rest of our lives, again depending on how we are taught to deal with it.
These days, however, with cyber bullying through social networking sites such as Ask.fm which allows teenagers to post comments anonymously, the bully is a faceless blur. Ask.fm has quickly become very popular with teenagers because of its question and answer format – basically once you set up your profile, anyone who is logged in can ask you any kind of question. Like most sites, it started harmlessly enough, but it has now turned nasty because of one crucial reason – there are no privacy settings. This means that from innocuous questions such as ‘what is your favourite song?’ the site has now become an easy way for mean, spiteful teenagers who have nothing better to do, than to post cruel, vicious comments about another person’s photos.
Parents are, understandably, very alarmed and worried especially since in the UK alone, there have already been several teen suicides as a result of the merciless bullying on Ask.fm. What is worse is that a teenager who is at the receiving end of derogatory language does not know whether the bullies are actually schoolmates, who are often their friends on Facebook, and who take advantage of the anonymity to lash out. I suppose there is a kind of perverse “thrill” in being to say exactly what you want to say without ever having to take responsibility for it (we even see adults doing this when they post nasty comments online either by creating a fake Facebook profile or by using a pseudonym when posting on other sites.)
This is schoolyard bullying taken to the extreme, where not only is it not possible to avoid the bully, but where the Internet schoolyard becomes a sinister place because it could literally be anyone. Kids who do not have the nerve to be bullies in real life, might feel “empowered” by the safety which anonymity affords them to hit back at others.
Of course, the most obvious solution is to get teenagers off this site completely. After all, why would they want to continue to log onto a site where they know they are going to be subjected to such awful treatment? The problem is that by that time, the bullying would have already spilt over into the real world because everyone in their circle would have already seen the comments, the insinuations and even the outright lies which have been spread online.
Parents and even some psychologists want to see Ask.fm (which is based in Latvia) shut down completely, especially since the owners refuse to take any responsibility for what is happening and have made it clear that they are not liable for what is posted. The two Latvian brothers who created it point out that their site is just another communication tool, and that the problem is not Ask.fm but that moral values have deteriorated in the UK. Meanwhile, they have refused to disable the ‘anonymous’ function which is at the root of the problem.
Not everyone is helpless in the face of anonymous insults, however.
Ask.fm allows you to reply to any question by posting a Youtube video and I watched in fascination as a young Maltese girl calmly replied to a string of nasty allegations (such as “your Dad brings home other women”) one by one, using irony and an impressive arsenal of expletives. “Sure, he has other women at home, he has me, my sister, my aunt drops by sometimes…why don’t you go and @#$%^&*” she told the anonymous person who posted the comment.
She said this in such a matter-of-fact way without once raising her voice that I couldn’t help but smile. Whatever one might think of her colourful language, she will definitely never be bullied in her life.
It’s the other kids we need to worry about though. Those who don’t have a lot of friends, who might turn to Ask.fm to feel included in what “everyone else is talking about” and who are easy prey for bullies who can quickly sniff out vulnerability. These are the teens who suffer in silence, brooding alone in their rooms about their own insecurities, and who can easily fall into a black, bottomless pit of depression. These are the kind of kids who are committing suicide after being goaded into doing just that, with repeated comments of “will you kill yourself already?”
If only out of respect for them alone, Ask.fm should be taken down.