The anonymity of the Internet gives cyberbullies the strength they don't have to be mean in person. Formspring.me is a social networking website with the self-described purpose of "finding out more about your friends by asking and responding to interesting questions." The website's model, however, is based on asking these questions anonymously, which negates the point that the person asking the question is actually a friend.
How Formspring Is Risky
To start, one creates an account that provides a profile with a blank box that allows anyone to ask you questions. Each time a new question is asked, it appears in your inbox and you have the option to answer it. Both the question and answer is posted to your profile for all to see and can also be streamed to other social networking websites, such as Facebook, Tumblr and Twitter. By linking a Formspring account to other websites, users invite all of their online friends to ask questions anonymously. Anyone can ask a question, without even having a Formspring account, once you know the handle of the user. On the surface this seems harmless, but the underlying premise that ensures anonymity makes cyberbullying all too easy. Unfortunately, it is a forum without accountability, responsibility and consequences.
The old saying that goes "sticks and stones may break my bones but words will never hurt me" is the furthest from the truth. Problems such as poor school performance, school absences, and, in worse cases, suicides have been linked to children who have been unable to deal with the stress and pressure of being bullied. In one incident, Formspring was cited as the source of cyberbullying that led to the suicide of one Long Island teenager.
The amount of information shared by users is another problem because it can be used in social engineering and password-reset attacks. Conversation topics such as pet names, birth dates and favorite sports teams are often linked to users' passwords. Users who may know enough to avoid responding to appropriate and offenses messages might be open to answering seemingly innocent questions that are the gateway to online scams.
Changes for the Better
The law has been far behind in catching up with cyber crimes, but gradually some new ways are being created to protect kids online. In September 2011, New York Senator Jeffrey Klein supported the introduction of a new cyber-bullying bill to punish bullies who use the Internet and smartphones to torment others, while stating, "If people know there is a tough law on the books and they're going to be punished, they are going to act accordingly." This bill will extend the current law to include cyberbullying as a possible cause of suicide.
Following several reports of cyberbullying, Formspring made changes that give users the option to control how they receive questions, one of which allows users to choose not to receive anonymous questions. Also, users can now make their profiles protected, which means others have to request access to be able to ask questions.
Parenting is always the first stand in protecting kids, so take some of the following advice.
- Be aware of what social networks your kids are using and monitor their online activities.
- Talk with them regularly to stay aware of what is happening in their lives. Having access to their social networks is a great start to helping them if incidents of cyberbullying should occur.
- Consider using parental control software. Formspring has partnered with a service called SocialShield to provide account monitoring for parents. This service is not free of cost but is also available for other social networks.
- Bill to Crack Down on Cyber-bullies Introduced in New York (Reuters)
- Option to Stop Receiving Anonymous Questions (Formspring)
- Teenage Insults, Scrawled on Web, Not on Walls (New York Times)