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Cyberbullying on social networks has spawned a new form of self-harm

By Alexandra Topping, The Guardian
Tuesday, August 6, 2013 16:38 EDT
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Charities warn of vulnerable youngsters encountering pernicious abuse online but unable to cease using sites

Some vulnerable children on social networks plagued by cyber bullyingare using the sites as a form of self-harm, charities warned on Tuesday, after a 14-year-old girl killed herself after being abused by online bullies.

Calls for the website ask.fm to be closed down have intensified, after it was revealed that 14-year-old Hannah Smith, who lived in Lutterworth, Leicestershire, died on Friday after being cyberbullied on the question-and-answer site.

The ask.fm site allows users to send messages anonymously. At least five teenagers have now killed themselves in the past year after experiencing abuse on the website.

In a statementon Tuesday ask.fm said Hannah’s death was a “true tragedy”. It encouraged reporting of bullying.

Charities warned that some children are unable to stop using such sites even if they know they are going to be bullied.

Scott Freeman, founder of The Cybersmile Foundation, said: “It’s very easy to get carried away in this circle of online self-abuse when you’re alone in your room. [Children] check it, and keep checking, and it evolves into a kind of self-harm.

“We’ve seen instances where people have actually lined themselves up for abuse, posting a question like “do you think I’m pretty?” knowing that they’ll get torn apart. What we’re dealing with now is a completely new concept. It’s the hate that’s resonating through all of our social mediacoming through to our youth.”

He added that the site had created problems in the last three years, but that these were becoming acute because of the site’s growing popularity.

“I saw a tweet that said ‘ask.fm: because our parents are on Facebook’. That’s what teenagers want, kind of their own world that parents don’t know about, that parents aren’t in,” he said.

The site, which is based in Latvia, has exploded in popularity since its launch in 2010, growing from eight million users last year to 65 million in 2013 and adding around 300,000 new users around the globe each day. It is aimed at teenagers and users are required to state they are over 13, but this is self-policed.

Jeremy Todd, chief executive of the charity Family Lives, called for the site to be shut down and said more parents were contacting the charity to complain about ask.fm.

“We know these sites engender paranoia and destroy trust between friends, it is a very, very, pernicious form of bullying,” he said.

Anonymous messengers taunted Hannah about her weight, and the death of an uncle, and urged her to hurt herself. Her father, Dave Smith, told the Leicester Mercury that sites such as ask.fm were making money “out of people’s misery and it is wrong”.

He said: “I would appeal to David Cameron as a prime minister and a father to look at this to make sure these sites are properly regulated so bullying of vulnerable people like my daughter cannot take place. I don’t want other parents to go through what I am going through.”

Another teenager, 16-year-old Jessica Laney, was found dead at her home in Florida in December after people posting message on social networking sites bombarded her with insults.

Last autumn Ciara Pugsley, 15, from Leitrim, and Erin Gallagher, 13, from Donegal, took their own lives, and in April, Josh Unsworth, 15, from Lancashire, killed himself after suffering months of abusive online messages.

Emma-Jane Cross, from the campaign group BeatBullying, said thousands of young people were facing a daily barrage of online abuse, death threats and harassment. One in three young people was cyberbullied, and one in 13 encountered persistent abuse online.

“We cannot stand by while innocent children lose their lives,” she said. “Adults need to set an example for young people and we all have a responsibility to tackle this type of behaviour and keep our children safe.”

A spokeswoman for ask.fm said the company had contacted Leicestershire police and would cooperate with their investigation into the circumstances of the suicide.

“Hannah Smith’s death is a true tragedy. We would like to convey our deepest condolences to her family and friends,” said the company in a statement. “Ask.fm actively encourages our users and their parents to report any incidences of bullying, either by using the in-site reporting button, or via our contact page. All reports are read by our team of moderators to ensure that genuine concerns are heard and acted upon immediately, and we always remove content reported to us that violates our terms of service.”

The company, unlike Twitter which has recently spoken out about online abuse after a series of female users were subjected to death and rape threats, has been accused of ignoring fears.

Freeman said: There are people on ask.fm who are relentlessly destroying children, but then there are really nice children who are disgusted by ask.fm, but who go on to watch.

“It’s this kind of voyeuristic thing – we’re dealing with something completely new. That’s what really upsets the victims when they come to us, that kind of public humiliation. They can’t switch it off.”

© 2013 Guardian News and Media

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