WREXHAM youngsters are still being subjected to “horrific” bullying on a social networking site, despite the recent suicide of a teenager, an internet safety consultant has said.
The tragic suicide of Hannah Smith, 14, earlier this month after she was bullied on Ask.fm has failed to stem abuse, says Gwersyllt-based safety expert Charles Conway.
He said he had seen numerous “vile” comments on the Latvia-based site targeting Wrexham teenagers since Hannah’s death.
Mr Conway said one teenager had been called a “fat slag” and told to kill herself and he had spoken to the mother of a 12-year-old from Llay who had been bullied for not having had sex.
The question-and-answer website allows users to send messages without revealing their identity. Although users have to register an email address, name and date of birth, those posting messages can do so anonymously.
“Young people don’t differentiate between what is ‘real life’ and what is ‘the internet’ because, to young people, the internet is real life,” said Mr Conway.
“Popularity is no longer measured by how many friends you have in the playground, or if you hang around with the ‘cool kids’, but by how many friends you have on Facebook and how many people ‘Kik’ you, send you messages on whatsapp or ask you questions on Ask.fm.
“A ‘like’ on a Facebook photo or status update is just as gratifying to a teenager as a complement on the playground, and possibly even more so, because it’s accessible to a wider audience.
“Conversely, negative comments have a much more powerful impact because they are so public and, in the case of anonymous comments, they cause a sense of social isolation brought about by not knowing who made the comment.”
Mr Conway believes children and teenagers will not ‘walk away’ from the site, even if they are being bullied, because they have a need to know what is being said about them and think they can deal with the bullies themselves by exercising a ‘right to reply’ in responding to the comments.
In order to protect their children parents need to “step back in time”, he said, to get a grip on today’s technologies and protect their children from cyberbullies.
He said: “Your home telephone rings and someone wants to speak to your 13-year-old daughter.
“‘Who is it?’ you ask. ‘I’m not telling you, that’s none of your business’ replies the caller.
“Would you let that person speak to your child?
“Now imagine that the phone rang 50 or 100 times that day, with anonymous strangers asking for your daughter.
“Amidst the barrage of anonymous telephone calls, the postman arrives with a sack full of letters and parcels addressed to your child, bearing postmarks from all over the world.
“Your curiosity gets the better of you and you open some of the parcels and discover pornographic photographs and videos, images and threats of rape and sexual violence, and death threats cut from newspaper clippings.
“What would you do? Would you allow your daughter to answer the phone and open her own mail? Of course you wouldn’t. You’d call the police.
“And the internet is no different.”
Mr Conway has urged parents to talk to their children and do all they can to ensure they are safe online, including learning what is out on the internet beyond Facebook, and keeping an eye on their online activity.
Wrexham dad Richard Rogers said he has started monitoring his teenage daughter’s online activity after the tragic suicide of Hannah on August 2.
The father-of-three told the Leader: “My daughter was on Ask.fm – thankfully she deactivated it.
“As a young girl, she is very sensitive and I am relieved.
“A friend in Colchester alerted me to Ask.fm.
“I didn’t know much about it, but he told me the parents were up in arms there.
“When I heard about Hannah taking her life because of the bullying it broke my heart.
“I then asked my daughter about ask.fm and she said she had deactivated her account.”
Mr Rogers said he trusts his daughter but has checked her Facebook account along with her older sister and uncle to make sure she is safe online.
Mr Rogers added: “Teenagers are generally secretive about their feelings where parents are concerned and as a parent you have to ask and observe their responses for signs and constantly reassure them.”
In an open letter Ask.fm’s owners Mark and Ilja Terebin have condemned bullying.
It said: “We would like to reassure all users and parents of users that we are committed to ensuring that our site is a safe environment.
“We do not condone bullying of any kind, or any form of unacceptable use of our site.
“We have implemented various measures over the past months to continue to improve our users’ safety, and we have implemented improved reporting policies.
“We have been working with experts at the UK’s Safer Internet Centre, and thus the wider EU InSafe organisation, and are in constant discussions with them regarding our privacy and safety policies and the ways in which we may be able to enhance them.
“This is an on-going activity, which Ask.fm is wholly committed to.”