Lynelle Cantwell was sitting in math class when she learned about the poll. "Who are the ugliest girls in Grade 12 at [Holy Trinity Regional High]?" someone had posted anonymously on ask.fm, a website popular among tweens and teens that allows users to ask each other questions anonymously. The response Cantwell subsequently wrote on her Facebook page went viral.
"To the person that made the 'ugliest girls in grade 12 at hth' ask.FM straw poll," the teenager from Torbay, Nfld., began, "I'm sorry that your life is so miserable that you have to bring others down."
Now, less than two months later, the Newfoundland and Labrador English School District is looking into complaints of five other such online polls, The Canadian Press reported recently. It's hardly a problem unique to that province; schools across the country have talked about ask.fm and cyberbullying with their students. And though child psychologists have been warning about the toxic effects of online bullying and advising parents to act the moment they learn a child is being attacked online, new data from the Pew Research Center shows many parents have no idea what's happening in their children's online lives.
The Pew survey of parents of 13-to-17-year-olds found that, despite the urging from experts, only 61 per cent of parents have ever checked which websites their teen visited; only 60 per cent have ever checked their teen's social-media profile; 39 per cent have ever used parental controls for blocking, filtering or monitoring their teen's online activities; and only 41 per cent of mothers and 30 per cent of fathers said they frequently talk with their teen about what is appropriate and inappropriate online behaviour.
But it's the anonymity of ask.fm that makes it so easy for children to be cruel to one another, often with a level of ugliness that is horrifying to adults – but somehow commonplace to kids in a digital age, so many of whom can't bear to be left out of any conversation, even if it does become abusive.
Cantwell still doesn't know who posted the poll or who cast votes, a fact that continues to bother her. "If it was any friends of mine that voted, then I'd be able to take them out of my life," she says.
While it seems intuitive that anonymity would undermine trust in relationships with peers in a particularly insidious way, research hasn't caught up with the technology. No one has published studies on whether or not anonymous bullying is more psychologically damaging than knowing who your attacker is, says Dr. Peter Szatmari, chief of the child and youth mental-health collaborative between Toronto's Centre for Addiction and Mental Health, the Hospital for Sick Children and the University of Toronto.
But, he says, bullying is "always toxic," whatever form it takes. There is no doubt that anonymity makes it easier for people to say and do things they otherwise wouldn't. "You don't have some of those built-in inhibitions," Szatmari adds.
It's not unusual for kids to tell each other to kill themselves, to ask flagrantly invasive sexual questions or level homophobic remarks. It could be the kid sitting next to you in science class. It could be a girl in your clique. It could be any of the site's users.
Posts on the site have included "Do us all a favour n kill ur self" to users anonymously pestering teen girls for sexually explicit photos.
People can say these things online because they think they will never be held responsible for their words, says Emily Bazelon, author of Sticks and Stones: Defeating the Culture of Bullying and Rediscovering the Power of Character and Empathy.
"The anonymity insulates you from consequences," she says.
Bazelon recommends staying away from social-media platforms that allow for anonymity.
"The answer to these sites is that we need to get kids off them," she says.
Facebook, Twitter and other "real-name culture" sites are much better for kids, Bazelon says.
Whatever boundaries you want to set for your teen, some degree of monitoring is essential.
"It is a mistake to let your kid go off in a room with a closed door with his laptop or his phone by himself," Bazelon says.
Bullying, cyber or in person, is a strong risk factor for depression, suicidal ideation, substance abuse and school failure, Dr. Szatmari says.
Too often, however, parents ignore or minimize the problem, assuming they are even aware of it to begin with.
"There is still a myth out there that [being bullied] is part of normal growing up. You know, 'Suck it up, kids,' " Dr. Szatmari says. "Probably the most important public-health thing we have to do around this whole issue is challenge that myth."
Cantwell's story is inspiring. Others end tragically.
At least seven teen suicides have been linked to the website ask.fm. In one case, a 14-year-old in Britain hanged herself in her bedroom after receiving messages through the website telling her to drink bleach, cut herself and kill herself.
While researching her book, many teens told Bazelon that saying things such as "Why don't you go kill yourself" has "become like a teenage meme. It's kind of lost its seriousness," she says. "They're tossing out another insult without thinking about how damaging it is."
The girl's death prompted British Prime Minister David Cameron to call on parents to boycott the site.
Founded in Latvia in 2010, ask.fm allows users to send each other questions anonymously. In 2014, the site was purchased by Ask.com, which has tried to clean up the site's reputation and make it a safer place. With more than 150 million users, ensuring safety is a near-impossible task.
"We are a global platform and we have a population of more than 40 per cent that falls into the age bucket of 13 to 18, so, not surprisingly, some negative things will happen," says Catherine Teitelbaum, ask.fm's chief safety officer.
The site has increased its team of moderators since it was purchased by Ask.com and now takes down 40 per cent more content than it did a year ago. Entire accounts can be reviewed and blocked if there are enough violations, Teitelbaum says. Users can also report inappropriate content, she says. (The company doesn't release numbers on how often it blocks accounts, or how many violations it takes to shut a user down).
Cantwell never joined ask.fm. Too many of her friends had horrible experiences with the site, including being called "whores," she says.
Even if the site did clean up its act, another one would come along to fill the role. "The problem with these sites is that they are a game of whack-a-mole," Bazelon says.
Parents shouldn't rely on schools to deal with online bullying because schools simply don't have the resources to monitor what students are doing online at all times, the author says. Nor can parents combat it on their own.
"It really has to be the whole community, school, culture coming together and making it not okay," Bazelon says.
Periodically checking in on your teens' social-media accounts is a good step. But the most crucial thing is to make sure your kids know they can come and talk to you about whatever is happening to them, whether it's in the hallways or online, Szatmari says.
"It's so important to keep the lines of communication open so that they're comfortable talking to you when these kinds of things happen," he says.
Do you check in on your kids' online social activity? Let me know @Dave_McGinn, #RaisingWell.
Popular websites and apps your kids might be using
Do you know what websites and apps your kids are using? Some are troubling, others harmless: Anything that allows users to interact anonymously should raise a red flag. While ask.fm is one of the most prominent sites when it comes to cyberbullying, there are others you should be on the lookout for. And some you should know just to sound cool with your kids.
How it works: The location-based app allows users to post 200-character messages anonymously on a "virtual bulletin board," no password or profile required, which are then shared to every other user within a two-kilometre range.
Cause for concern: Multiple school districts in the United States have banned the app because students frequently use it to bully and harass peers. Last year, a high school in Ottawa was put on lockdown after someone used the app to post a message saying there was a gun in the science lab.
How it works: Billed as "the best place to discover secrets around you," the mobile app allows users to anonymously send messages displayed as text over an image. Think strange confessions or taunting remarks with stock photography.
Cause for concern: Although the site has taken steps to prevent cyberbullying, such as not allowing users to post proper names unless it's those of public figures, the promise of anonymity makes it rife for bullying.
IN THE KNOW: OTHER POPULAR APPS
Burn Note: An app that automatically deletes messages after a certain period of time after they've been read. Only texts can be sent, not pictures or videos.
Snapchat: Like Burn Note, Snapchat allows users to share texts that disappear when a set time is up. It also allows sharing pictures and videos, which makes it popular for sexting.
WhatsApp: Billed for users 16 and over, this app lets users send texts, photos, videos or audio messages to individuals or groups.
Skout: A location-based dating and social-networking app, Skout connects users who are interested in one another, whether by proximity or their preferences. (The location-tracking feature is not enabled for teenage users, although they find ways to use it.)
Vine: A social-media app that lets users post and watch six-second videos that play on a loop.
YouNow: Users can create or watch live-streaming video that anyone in the world can watch. Its mission is "To allow anyone to get a live audience."
– Dave McGinn