Companies like Marvel Comics use Formspring to dialogue with their fans, however, teens often allow anonymous questions which can lead to cyberbullying.
As a father, Jim Dorff was shocked at the cruel, degrading and sexual questions being thrown at his 13-year-old daughter, but for many kids the social Q&A website called Formspring is a common middle school exercise.
“It’s toxic. It hurts kids mentally and emotionally,” Dorff said. “Parents are ignorant about Formspring and they need to be aware of this website. Kids are being called a whore and a tramp, and the ‘F-bomb’ is everywhere. Don’t even let your kids get near it.”
Dorff had been clueless about his daughter’s use of Formspring until she spent the night with a friend whose family uses Covenant Eyes and she accessed her account. When shown the pages of ruthless comments, Dorff had a difficult time understanding why his daughter and her friends would expose themselves to such hurtful words.
“She said, ‘It’s no big deal.’ But then she gets angry about what is being said,” Dorff said, recognizing the contradiction in his daughter’s words.
While most parents are unaware, middle school and high school students are big fans of Formspring.me, which was launched in November 2009 and has grown to more than 17 million users. The site is seeing 5 million questions answered each day.
“This site is essentially an anonymous way for teens to bully each other, and the danger in that is it, over time, becomes overwhelming,” Missy Wall, director of Teen Contact, told The Dallas Morning News.
Once a Formspring account is set up and links are placed on their Facebook, Twitter or Tumblr accounts, young people open the door for anyone to ask them questions, often anonymously. Many kids initially think only their friends will see their Formspring page, but quickly find themselves the targets of anyone who takes an interest.
A Formspring user may choose not to allow anonymous questions, but few kids take advantage of the option, preferring to answer anonymous questions with clever comebacks and barbs of their own.
“Some teens choose any means available to be heard or acknowledged even if the attention is negative,” said Richard Blankenship, author, speaker and director of counseling at the North Atlanta Center for Professional Counseling. The atmosphere may be “too good to leave and too bad to stay,” he said. “They tolerate the abuse to gain acceptance.”
Unfortunately, abusive words can dig beneath the armor of a teen, and Blankenship worries that teens who expose themselves to being beaten down will begin to accept the negative messages being thrust upon them, which can lead to depression or worse. Cyberbullying has played a pivotal role in recent and well-publicized teen suicides.
If a parent finds their child is exposing themselves to cyberbullying on a website, Blankenship says parents need to take swift but prudent action. First, provide a safe atmosphere that allows your teen or child to talk and express their reasoning. Don’t put your child on the defensive. Allow them to be heard and understood, which may be the reason they opened a Formspring account, he said.
Like the Internet itself, Formspring can be helpful or harmful, depending on how it is used. For instance, people of technical notoriety use the site to answer questions and build rapport with their customers, and Marvel Comics and Red Bull energy drink use Formspring to connect with their supporters.
Regardless, parents need to set rules for using the Internet and monitor what their kids do online. When counseling families, Blankenship often tells parents that it’s a kid’s job to push boundaries and it’s a parent’s job to keep their kids within those boundaries. Meanwhile, in today’s sexualized culture, kids often mistake risqué and sexualized conversations online as normal behavior, said Blankenship, who will soon release “Project Purity,” a sex education program for teens and their parents.
It is important for parents to know all passwords to their kids’ online accounts and to be a participant in their online social networking. He often recommends Covenant Eyes Accountability to help parents stay informed and have relevant conversations with their kids about what they do online.
For Jim Dorff, talking to his daughter about Formspring motivated him to further action. He installed Covenant Eyes Accountability and Filtering on his home’s computers, and he set up individual Covenant Eyes usernames so he can receive Accountability Reports for each of his two teenagers. Because he doesn’t use the Internet like his teens, the reports provide a valuable education and prompts good conversations.
When kids learn to be open with their parents about their online activity, risk dissipates dramatically, Blankenship advises.
“It’s what’s done in secret that is scary,” he said.