ST. GEORGE – In September parents of students at Desert Hills High School, Dixie Middles School, and other schools received a letter alerting them of something new in social media – a smartphone app called Ask.fm that allows anyone to send anonymous messages to anyone with an Ask.fm account. While not a problem in and of itself, what the letter noted is that some questions asked of students were “graphically sexual, racial or antisocial.”
In two cases messages told the recipients: “Go kill yourself.”
If this scenario sounds familiar, it is because apps like Ask.fm were nationally highlighted in the case of 12-year-old Rebecca Sedwick, of Florida, who committed suicide Sept. 10. According to local law enforcement, Sedwick was allegedly sent taunting messages over Ask.fm and Kik that are said to have contributed to her decision to take her own life.
Two Florida girls, a 14-year-old and 12-year-old, have since been arrested in connection with Sedwick’s suicide, CBS News reported, and charged with aggravated stalking charges in connection with the messages. The girls have pleaded not guilty to the charges. Authorities have said they are also looking at as many as 15 other juveniles who may have contributed to the bullying of Sedwick.
Desert Hills High School
On four separate occasions at Desert Hills High School, it was brought to Principal Rusty Taylor’s attention that students were receiving harassing messages over Ask.fm and other social media apps. In two of the accounts, messages suggested that the recipients kill themselves.
“It gets pretty brutal,” Taylor said of messages he has since seen related to cyberbullying.
Taylor sent a letter out to parents of students about Ask.fm and the ability it gave users to post anonymous messages. He also encourages parents to talk to their children about the apps and to monitor their social media accounts.
“In every case, parents didn’t know (about the apps),” Taylor said. “The best thing a parent can do is know their kid’s Internet and phone habits.”
Parents being proactive about knowing what their child is involved in can go a long way in helping the schools, Taylor added. In most cases, the school can only be reactionary in cases where cyberbullying has already occurred.
Taylor also mentioned Snapchat, another smartphone app that allows users to snap quick photos that are sent to others, then automatically delete themselves. However, it is possible for people on the receiving end to save the photos by taking a quick screen-capture of their phone or by using apps specially-designed to save the images.
“All of these apps give the impression of control,” Taylor said, “but once it’s on the Internet, it’s there.”
Dixie Middle School Principal Tim Lowe said he and other principals have been made aware of the apps. Lowe adapted Taylor’s letter and sent it out to the parents of students at his school.
“Parents should be made aware of these,” Lowe said. “Please check your child’s apps.”
Ask.fm, Kik and Snapchat have provided ways cyberbullying may be avoided.
Ask.fm users can choose not to accept anonymous messages. As well, Ask.fm reminds users that “anonymity should never be used to ask questions that are mean or hurtful … If you break the rules, you are responsible – and we can supply identifying information to law enforcement if necessary.”
In its Help Center, Kik, another messaging service widely used by teens, shows parents of teen users, and users in general, how to adapt privacy settings to block people sending harassing messages, along with other safety tips.
As with Ask.fm, both Kik and Snapchat note they will supply user information to law enforcement if deemed necessary.
As of Oct. 30, Taylor said there have not been any further incidents of app-related cyberbullying reported at the high school since the letters were sent out. He said some students had actually gotten upset with him for telling their parents about the apps, because now those parents are monitoring their phone use.
Bullying is bad enough, but cyberbullying takes it up a notch
“It is my experience that cyberbullying is far worse (than face-to-face bullying) and becoming the ‘normal’ way to bully,” said T.S. Romney, a detective with the LaVerkin Police Department and author of “The Bully Slayer.”
Romney said the anonymity social media can provide is one of the reasons potential bullies use the medium – it gives them the ability “to say things that you most likely would not normally say,” and not worry about the possible consequences.
Also, one of the great benefits and great dangers of social media is its reach.
“The ability to reach hundreds more people in potentially a few minutes’ time,” Romney said. “Social media, like so many other inventions, was created for a great purpose but also has the likelihood for devastating consequences.”
“The reach of the bully is so much greater,” said Geoff Steurer, a family and marriage therapist. “Pictures live forever on the Internet, as do comments and remarks. While a kid can move physically away from a bully by changing classes, schools, or even moving, cyberbullying follows victims forever.”
Tips for parents
Steurer echoed Taylor and Lowe; parents need to be more involved in combating cyberbullying, he said.
“Parents must watch their childrens social media and other online activities very carefully so they can intervene on either end of the bullying,” Steurer said. “Kids want privacy as they get older, which is understandable, but until a child – and I’m talking about kids as young as 12 – has shown that they can safely navigate social media and texting, parents need to be a presence.”
Many kids can feel outnumbered and alone when they are the target of cyberbully attacks, Steurer said. “A parent who is aware and present can step (in), provide guidance, protection, and coach their child on how they can respond. It even allows for parents to approach parents and discuss the situation,” he said.
“The biggest threat to kids is parents being clueless,” Steurer said.
Steurer also recommends that there be some “unplugged” time in relation to a child’s phone and Internet access.
“Kids need to have their phones off at certain hours and unplug,” he said. “Poor boundaries with devices can create problems where kids have too much familiarity with each other and can say and do things in this virtual world that they would never do face to face. I think it’s important to encourage lots of face-to-face contact with friends so there is that personal accountability for what is said.”
“If you’re physically around someone, fewer hurtful things are said,” Steurer said.
And you thought some of the comments you read in news threads were bad.
Ed. Note: T.S. Romney serves as a detective with the LaVerkin Police Department and has contributed to St. George News in the past with his column “The Bully Slayer.”
Geoff Steurer is a licensed family and marriage therapist who writes “Relationship Connection,” a weekly column on St. George News.
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