French philosopher Voltaire suggested we should judge a man by his questions, rather than his answers.
But what happens when men and women—or in this case, boys and girls—hide those questions behind anonymity?
From what School District 23 has observed, the answer is cyber bullying and harassment—with no punishment for the abuser.
Recently the school district blocked access to the social media website ask.fm after realizing many students had set up accounts in order to send and receive messages to and from their peers.
School District 23 superintendent Hugh Gloster said the decision to ban the site was made because ask.fm allows people to ask questions without revealing their identity.
“It was discovered that within our school district, as well as many other jurisdictions, there had been an increasing number of scenarios where messages had been exchanged that could really be described as nothing other than cyber bullying or harassment,” said Gloster.
“And there was no way of tracking back to find out who was (responsible).”
Gloster said several staff members made senior management at the school district aware of ask.fm concerns. He also noted a few students within the district had reported issues with the website as well.
“There have been some very disturbing reports…some really nasty, ugly things being posted through this site.”
The way ask.fm operates is fairly simple: Anyone who has an account can ask a question to any other user.
There are several ways those using the site can find people they may know to ask questions to.
Upon creating a username, ask.fm requests users share their profile with friends to get questions directed their way.
The site also has a search function that can find individuals by username, first name, surname, e-mail, Facebook account, Twitter account or location.
Capital News used the site to search ‘Kelowna,’ which resulted in 361 user matches—most of whom appeared to be high school students.
Questions on those users’ pages ranged from inoffensive queries such as, “Where do you see yourself in five years?” to much more intrusive questions, often of a sexual nature.
According to the website’s terms of service, users of ask.fm can be as young as 13.
Ask.fm has a safety tips page, where it suggests those who are asked inappropriate questions tell a trusted adult and block the person who sent the question. There is also an option to report those who continue to send harassing queries.
But it doesn’t appear ask.fm proactively seeks out those who post inappropriate content; in fact, under terms of service, the site states: The ask.fm service allows for anonymous content, which ask.fm does not monitor.
Gloster said the goal of School District 23 is not to block specific websites; rather, educate students to protect themselves while sharing information online.
“We know trying to block individual sites is not a long-term solution; the long-term solution is definitely the educational program and having our students be the ones who help to lead that charge.”
Although the site will be blocked on school computers in the Central Okanagan, students will still be able to access ask.fm using their personal smartphones or computers at home.
The school district asks parents to become aware of their children’s online activities and ensure their kids know the importance of becoming responsible digital citizens.