As kids head back to school across the Tri-Cities for another year of classes, one youth support organization is raising the alarm bells over a controversial social networking website.
The site is called Ask.fm, and for staff at the PoCoMo Youth Services Society, the use of the site by vulnerable teens has become particularly troubling. The website allows users to ask other users questions, all while remaining anonymous if they choose.
Corrie Archer, a caseworker with PoCoMo, suggested teens in the Tri-Cities are being targeted and bullied on the site.
Even more troubling for the caseworker, while teens believe they might be talking to their peers, she suggested the person on the other end of the screen could be an adult or even a pedophile.
The society is calling for Ask.fm to shut down until the site can be monitored better.
"Right now we have youth who are suffering from abuse," Archer told the Tri-Cities NOW.
The site has a reported 65 million users around the world, but has drawn the ire of critics who are concerned it has become a forum for cyberbullying.
According to media reports, the website has been linked to four teenage suicides in Britain in the past year, while officials for the Latviabased website have indicated they intend to make the site safer.
Archer believes a site like Ask.fm is contributing to mental health problems seen locally. As one example, she said groups will get together and collectively bully another youth, creating self-doubt, depression and self-harm in the victim.
"What they are suffering from is peer rejection," she said.
Archer noted of 73 kids she's worked with in the last year, about 80 per cent are dealing with some type of mental health issue.
While Ask.fm may be the rage for teens today, for PoCoMo's executive director Jerome Bouvier, the problems with that specific site are just part of a larger issue around the use of social media and its effect on kids.
More specifically, he said teens are turning to sites like Ask.fm and Facebook as their only social connection.
And he asked what would seem to be an obvious question to most adults: why do these teens continue to stay on these websites even after being bullied when they can turn them off with the click of a button? Bouvier doesn't have all the answers, but believes mental health plays a role. He suggested governments at all levels need to step
up and better fund youth mental health programs, or the situation will only worsen. "What part of this do we not get?" Bouvier asked, adding kids are living in an online world that adults and parents are struggling to manage.
The organization is also questioning why social media sites like Ask.fm aren't being held accountable for some of the content, with Bouvier arguing the technology is moving much faster than government policy when it comes to social media.
Officials with School District 43 said they are aware of Ask.fm, but not of any specific incident related to the website and students.
Stephen Whiffin, the district manager of information services, noted the district became aware of the site in May, and alerted counsellors and support staff after it became apparent students were active on it.
"We're really aware of the potential danger due to the anonymous nature of the site, which can encourage questions that are negative or sexual in nature," he said.
Though Whiffin noted the district has noticed significant activity by students on Ask.fm, it's just one of a number of potential problem sites. He said the district is focused on the overall picture of social media and educating students around protection of privacy and responsibilities in the digital world.
The district has also set up a "Digital Citizenship" page that offers resources and information to parents, students and teachers regarding responsible digital tool use in schools. To learn more go to www.sd43. bc.ca/Resources/DigitalCitizenship/Pages/ParentResources.aspx.
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