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Chief Safety Officer at Ask.fm discusses changes to the popular social networking site

Chief Safety Officer at Ask.fm discusses changes to the popular social networking site

It's no secret that I am not a fan of Ask.fm, a social networking site that's very popular with teens and that allows people to ask questions of others anonymously. When I wrote my first post about Ask.fm (which you can find here), it was under different ownership than it is now.

Ask.fm is a social network on mobile devices and the Web that allows you to ask questions—to your friends or others who also use the service.

In August 2014, the company Ask.com purchased Ask.fm. Recognizing that there was an issue with the cyberbullying and unsafe behavior taking place on the app, the company immediately hired Catherine Teitelbaum as Chief Safety Officer, who focuses in large part on the younger users of Ask.fm and made some changes that impact a large number of teens.

Of the approximately 150 million unique users, around 40% of them are teens.

Yesterday I spoke with Teitelbaum and asked her about her first impressions of Ask.fm and how things have changed since Ask.com took over and she began her tenure.

"I had been aware of it and watching as an outside safety person, then the CEO of Ask.com reached out and asked what I thought. We had worked together at Yahoo!" she says. "He explained that there was a problem with a rogue social media site in Eastern Europe and there was the potential to acquire it and clean it up and create a responsible social media service."

She says she was struck by the fact that it was a hybrid social media posting site with a text vibe to it, and that she noted,  "There’s a lot of teenagers here and they use it all day long."

Recent Changes to Ask.fm

Teitelbaum says that the first actions Ask.fm took was to remove  the prior founders and then make agreements with the Attorneys Generals of New York and Maryland which outlined specific actions the company would take to improve safety. Those actions included:

  • aggressive response to reports of misconduct
  • increased filtering by 40%, and increased the number of moderators by 40%
  • created a safety advisory board with internet safety experts

"We were committed to bringing it to best practices, creating policies from the ground up and holding ourselves accountable to monitoring and getting community into those standards," she says. "Those were intimidating goals but we met them."

When I asked about the sources of the problems initial, Teitelbaum says, "These were kids. They were making it up themselves, they didn’t know how to do better, and they were on startup budget."

"We have the resources, and we have been bringing in the right expertise," she adds.

Age Requirement for Use

I asked if there was ever discussion of increasing the age limit for use of the app from 13+ to 17+.

Teitelbaum said that idea was never seriously considered. She noted that the site is now COPPA compliant.

That wasn't enough to sway me. I still think the site should be for 17+, in part because of the anonymity, which is one of my biggest issues with Ask.fm.

Anonymity

When I asked if, given the studies that link anonymity with bad behavior online, there was ever discussion of making the site not anonymous.

"Yes. We looked at it carefully," she explains. "Before the acquisition, anyone could ask anonymous question without registering, but now we have changed that in a slight but important way - you now have to register and log in to ask an anonymous questions. It forces the user to recognize that, while asking questions anonymously, you are not anonymous to us."

"We believe that brings along with it a higher sense of responsibility - knowing that you can be tracked if you violate terms of service," she adds.

That may help, and while I'm glad that they've taken some steps, that doesn't mean that kids won't feel emboldened to ask questions that they otherwise would not if their name was attached. While I see that as a negative, unsurprisingly, Teitelbaum has a different view.

Teitelbaum said she feels the anonymity is important and a part of normal adolescent development of trying on different hats as kids decide who they want to be and as they separate from their parents.

She notes that a new study by Ask.fm found that two in five teens (40%) say being anonymous online makes it easier to talk about difficult topics while only 4% say they would talk about those same issues under a profile tied to their known identity.

Advice for Parents

When I asked what Teitelbaum wanted parents to know, she focused on involvement.

"Digital parenting is an important part of parenting. Parents get intimidated that kids know more about technology and the apps and while that may be true, parents known more about life and decision making and consequences," she says.

"It’s important that we show up, and show up in their digital lives," she says.

Yes! I couldn't agree more.

"That means different things at different ages," she says. "At the very least, it means asking them about their apps, why they like them, what’s different abt this one that’s appealing, be on the app."

She and I agree on helping kids work up to independence online, just like you get a learners permit for driving. Just as kids are not just the keys and be sent out solo on their first driving adventure, there's no need to turn them loose without supervision on the internet.

"Parents need to get to know tech, watch kids use it, and gradually give more independence as they’ve earned it. You don’t have to be an expert on tech to do that."

Parents' Guide

Ask.fm also published a Parents' Guide that it created with Connect Safely. You can find it here. A few items in it that stood out to me:

* "Why do people like Ask.fm? In a word, it’s fun. There’s also a unique allure to anonymous spaces, a feeling of ‘anything goes’ that can be at once appealing and terrifying."

* "Bullying can and does happen in real life and online and, of course, it happens on Ask.fm. Teaching our kids to respect themselves and each other in both physical and online spaces will go a long way toward reducing the mean-spiritedness that happens on services like Ask.fm."

* "On Ask.fm, there are steps you can take to keep your experience on the positive side, like blocking anonymous answers, reporting abuse and avoiding the public Stream, which at times can feel like a river of middle school angst . . ."

It also advises being aware of how you are dressed and present yourself if you record a video answer, and notes that by default Ask.fm shares what you post on other networks if you connected your profile to these apps and you need to uncheck those boxes, and that the default is for others to be able to ask you anonymous questions, but you can change that.

There's a lot to handle there, right?

You know your child best, and only you can decide if Ask.fm is a good place for them to be. Yes, even if they are 13 or older. Just because the app states an age doesn't mean your child has a birth right to use it.

If, after checking it out on your own and deciding you are comfortable with it, then be sure to review the parents guide with your kids and make it clear what settings work for you.

Then, as Teitelbaum says, stay involved.

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