Nearly 40 per cent of surveyed schoolgirls who had used a controversial website associated with several teenage suicides have been sent abusive messages, a new study reveals.
Girls are also more likely to be bullied when using Ask.fm than other social networking sites such as Facebook or Twitter, according to a study published today. The research, which surveyed more than 300 British girls aged 13-16, comes just days after the Latvia-based company behind Ask.fm revealed plans to improve safety measures and make it easier to report abuse.
The site, which allows people to pose questions anonymously to users, has been mentioned in relation to five teenage suicides in the UK, the Republic of Ireland and the US. The most recent was 14-year-old Hannah Smith, from Leicestershire in England, who was found hanged earlier this month.
Amy Binns, senior lecturer in journalism at the University of Central Lancashire, who conducted the study, said that the website's design means it is "made for bullying". Messages that girls reported receiving included "why are you such a slutty little cunt".
Half the surveyed students, who all attend the same British state girls' school, said that they used Ask.fm. Of those students, 38 per cent said that they had received abusive messages such as "you should die", "you are an attention seeking whore" and "everyone in 8C hates you".
Ms Binns said that parents and teachers are mostly unaware of the dangers posed by such websites. "Very few people who don't use the Ask.fm site realise how it works and that it makes it very easy for people to be nasty and abusive on there," she said.
The problem was exacerbated because there was no way to respond to a message privately, as is common on other social networking sites, Ms Binns said. "As soon as you reply to something that is abusive, you make it public for everyone else to see. This can then spiral out of control because as soon as one person has a go, it gives other people the opportunity."
Ms Binns, whose study was published in the Media Education Research Journal, looked at Ask.fm and other similar sites for her research. She claims that at least eight suicides have been associated with such sites.
The death of Hannah Smith has sparked widespread criticism, with UK prime minister David Cameron urging parents and students to boycott such sites, describing them as "hateful" and "vile". The owners of Ask.fm subsequently ordered an independent safety audit, which was completed this week by a British law firm. The site has now pledged to create a more prominent "report button" for abusive messages, to hire more staff to act as moderators and to urge users to become registered in order to limit anonymity.
In a statement released last week, Ask.fm said it wanted its users to have fun in a "safe online environment", adding: "In the light of recent events highlighting the impact online bullying and harassment can have on young people, we engaged professional advisers to conduct a full and independent audit of our site and its safety features."
Claire Lilley, safer technology expert at children's charity the NSPCC, said: "Unfortunately these changes come too late for some young people but... (they) are a step in the right direction. However, these changes alone are not going to solve the problem of online bullying. And, while they are being implemented, children and young people are likely to continue to suffer."