When I was in middle school, I once drew my name + a boy's name with a heart around it on a wall that was a popular spot for that kind of graffiti. It was a great way to let someone know that you "liked" them, and if you were careful, you could claim innocence about the writing-but still maybe piqué enough interest that the boy would ask you to "go" with him.
But I wasn't careful. I was totally busted by two other kids, and that led to a two-week period of merciless teasing that was so relentless the boy was too mortified to ever speak to me again.
Today, it's all about the internet, and kids post things far more provocative than just a heart around two names. In fact, they are posting much more personal information, according to these chilling stats from a report in May by the Pew Internet and the American Life Project:
91% of the 12-to-17-year-olds post selfies
24% post videos
91% share their real name
60% state their relationship status
82% list their birthday
71% share where they live and go to school
53% post their email address
20% post their cell number
Of course, I'm also guilty of all the above, as are most people I know. But kids have fewer filters than adults, and share information that is heartbreakingly vulnerable. And if there is one thing that attracts nastiness and bullying, it's vulnerability, so what some kids post online is akin to pouring blood into water full of sharks.
They are using sites like Ask.fm (a site where individuals offer viewers the opportunity to comment and ask questions) and Kik (an instant messaging app) to post these things -- sites their parents have never heard of -- and only posting innocuous information on the sites they know their parents watch, like Facebook and Twitter.
Here is a profile I found in about two minutes of searching on Ask.fm (I added the flower to cover this young woman's face).
And here is a response she received.
Her response is pretty amazing, particularly when you consider her suicide date listed on her profile.
Ask.fm has been linked to at least two suicides in the United States and more in the UK, including Rebecca Sedwick. At 12 years old, she jumped to her death because of bullying on Ask.fm. Two girls, aged 12 and 14, have been charged with felony aggravated stalking in the case. According to CNN, Rebecca's mother thought she was protecting her daughter. She shut down her Facebook page and moved her to a different school. She had no idea her daughter was using Ask.fm and Kik. And I'll bet the mother of the girl in the screenshots above doesn't know her daughter has posted about having an eating disorder, a cutting problem, and a planned suicide date. I wish I could warn her.
I don't have a solution to suggest, but obviously talking to your kids about sites like Ask.fm and Kik and Snapchat and any of the other sites you should be paying attention to is a place to start. Parents can also try to limit access, but I suspect kids will find a way around that.
And remember, the vast majority of teenagers do NOT commit suicide because of Ask.fm or other sites.
But it's good to be aware, and it's a reminder that parents need to stay connected to their kids -- face-to-face, and digitally.
-By Cecily Kellogg