The Formspring Puzzle

Posted June 06, 2010, at 7:43 p.m.

Many teenagers and preteens know all about Formspring. Most grown-ups never have heard of this new Web product, which has figured in cyberbullying and several teen suicides. It is time that parents, teachers and law-enforcement agencies find out.

According to Quantcast, which measures such things, formspring.me, its Internet address, attracts 28.9 million visitors a month, including 13.7 million in the United States — up from nearly zero at the beginning of this year.

Kids are attracted to its ask-a-question and ask-me-anything-you-like format, quick exchange of questions and answers, and, perhaps above all, its optional anonymity. They can link a Formspring account with Facebook, Twitter and other social networks.

At best, Formspring can be a simple means of exchanging opinions and information. At worst, it can provide an avenue for asking demeaning questions such as “How’s your acne?” or “Why are you such a slut?” In one case, a student asked another “Why don’t you kill yourself?” And the possible 24-hour-a-day of such onslaughts can lead a victim to depression and in some cases suicide. Even at best, Formspring can become an addictive waste of time that would be better spent outdoors or doing homework or actually hanging out with friends in person.

Educators and guidance counselors disagree on how to deal with Formspring. Some see it as by and large a constructive aid to interaction. Others see it and other social networks as dangerous diversions from face-to-face conversation. While some schools have blocked Formspring, other authorities contend that blocking it just steers the kids deeper underground, into worse sites.

Parry Aftab, a privacy lawyer and Internet safety expert, told ABC’s “Good Morning America” that anonymous electronic bullying is worse than the old-fashioned schoolyard variety: “The schoolyard bullies beat you up and then go home. The cyberbullies beat you up at home, at grandma’s house, wherever you’re connected to technology.”

Ms. Aftab advised those being bullied in cyberspace to “stop, block, and tell” — stop reading the insulting messages, block them from your computer and tell someone.

School authorities in Verona, N.J., have been tackling Formspring head on. They have notified parents by e-mail that students have been using school computers to go on a “Facebook application site that allowed students to engage in inappropriate dialogue.” An online news service, newjer-seynewsroom.com, reports that school officials said they had blocked school-computer access to the site and recommended that parents see if their children have visited the site and urge them to avoid it.

Children have often developed underground societies and kept secrets from their parents and teachers. Formspring is among their latest tools (or in some cases weapons), but if it is suppressed, others will take its place.

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