Ask.fm, the troubling secret playground of tweens and teens

Insanely popular with kids, the question-and-answer service thrives on anonymity, making it fun and dangerous.

Jennifer Van Grove Former Senior Writer / News
Jennifer Van Grove covered the social beat for CNET. She loves Boo the dog, CrossFit, and eating vegan. Her jokes are often in poor taste, but her articles are not.
Jennifer Van Grove
6 min read
teens phones social
Olivier Morin/AFP/Getty Images

Spy on Ask.fm's public stream and you'll feel like you've been transported back to middle school, dumped in the center of he-said, she-said dramas -- sometimes innocuous, sometimes not. Here, hormone-crazed young boys and girls banter about their after-school plans, tease their peers, boast about their most recent hookups, and try to appear cool with expletives and graphic language.

Ask.fm is a 3-year-old question-and-answer app that's wracked up 57 million users and is adding members at a rate of 200,000 a day. It's spreading from kid to kid, infiltrating middle schools and high schools the same way that mobile sensations Instagram and Snapchat have.

The Latvian-run platform, launched in June 2010, resembles predecessor Formspring and offers a Web and mobile space where people create profiles so that anyone, not just other members, can ask them questions. The service was essentially a European clone of Formspring until the latter shifted focus in July of last year. Since then, Ask.fm has added about 50 million users.

Today, Ask.fm has ballooned into a parent-free digital space where kids go to goof off and escape the built-in accountability of Facebook. According to brother co-founders Mark and Ilja Terebin, Ask.fm is big in Brazil, the U.S., Italy, Russia, the U.K., Germany, Turkey, Argentina, Poland, and France, though it has a presence in 150 additional countries.

A quick glimpse at the Ask.fm stream shows young kids engaging in lighthearted banter and sexual conversations. Screenshot by Jennifer Van Grove/CNET

As a back-channel for after-school chitchat that can stay anonymous, the app often exacerbates offline dramas and has even been linked to a handful of teen suicides. The Terebins will tell you the tool simply promotes honest communication and that negativity on the service reflects society's growing lack of moral values.

Because of its adolescent audience, common questions on Ask.fm can be harmless and adorable in what they reveal or keep secret. Do you like me? Are you going out with Alex? Why is Sarah mad at Holly?

Yet, intermixed with these ordinary tween concerns are troubling inquiries. An anonymous user asked a female teenager, "Have you struggled with an eating disorder/ depression/ self harm/ suicidal thoughts before? It's okay if you don't wanna answer, I just need some advice:)." The young girl's response: "all of them... "

On Ask.fm, questions range from the innocent to the obscene. Screenshot by Jennifer Van Grove/CNET

In the obscene spectrum, statements such as "Tits or ass," or "you're such a slut," are also prevalent. There's worse. Much worse. All there for your viewing pleasure -- for anyone else's viewing pleasure.

On Ask.fm, members pick which questions, often just statements, they want to respond to. Their answers, which can include photos and video, are posted to their profiles, as well as to a real-time feed of responses. Though hidden from public sight, this stream makes it easy for any lurker with an account to glimpse inside this secret, profanity-laden world where crushes are exposed, Snapchats and Kiks are exchanged, insecurities are latched on to, and bullies go unchecked.

The popularity of the Formspring replica may come as a shock. In April, Ask.fm racked up 13 billion page views from 180 million unique visitors, Ilja Terebin told CNET. Each visitor spends, on average, 100 minutes per month on Ask.fm.

Tween girl uses Instagram account to promote Ask.fm profile. Screenshot by Michelle Meyers/CNET

There is no question that Ask.fm, an ad-based service that's backed by RubyLight Fund, is predominantly a playground for youngsters. The service's primary audience is between the ages of 13 and 25, and 50 percent of registered users are under 18, Terebin said. The numbers don't reflect Ask.fm's popularity with the under 13 crowd, a group that frequently fudges birth dates to gain access to apps. Still, the data confirms the obvious. Just observe the stream for a few minutes and you'll see the youthful faces of boys and girls alongside the SMS-style vernacular -- unmistakable and unpunctuated -- of the Millennial generation.

These kids, it would seem from observing their behaviors, are posting their Ask.fm profile URLs to their Instagram accounts as a way to solicit questions from friends and strangers. Schools and classmates are often mentioned by name in posted questions, which suggests the platform acts as an uncensored gossip zone where anonymity masks the identity of people encountered on a daily basis.

Such an environment is ripe for digital sport that can devolve into quarrels that trickle back to school grounds. The 13-year-old daughter of a CNET colleague said that Ask.fm was the cause of frequent conflicts at her school. The service became popular with her friends, mostly kids between the ages of 12 and 14, in March. Now everyone at her school has "an Ask.fm," she said.

"At first, I really liked it ... It was interesting ... friends would say inside jokes and I would try to figure out who it was ," she said. "You could talk to your friends and they wouldn't know ... You could mess around."

The fun stopped when inappropriate questions trickled in from people she didn't know, a side effect of promoting her account on Instagram. Her father discovered one such comment and forced her to close the account. But the bigger drama, in the teen's view, was when her friends started sharing their passwords with each other. Someone was blamed for something someone else wrote, things escalated, and problems arose.

So now she is back using the services she loved before: Instagram, Kik, and Snapchat. Though she sometimes misses the questions, she appreciates being distanced from Ask.fm-related drama at school.

A young girl stealthily responds to a question with a video post while her mother, in the background, remains unaware. Screenshot by Jennifer Van Grove/CNET

For most adolescents, anonymous services such as Ask.fm protect them, to a degree. They're not out to say or do extreme things, said Danah Boyd, a senior researcher for Microsoft who studies how young people use social media. They just want to hang out and goof around with their peers, without always being accountable to ever-peering adults. Yet left unsupervised, kids often find their way to trouble, intentionally or otherwise.

With privacy options like the ability to turn off anonymous questions or block users, Ask.fm should be an above-board, safe zone where members can enjoy their digital freedoms.

The site's terms of service restricts membership to those who are at least 13 years of age, claims to require a valid name and e-mail address during the registration process, and bans obscene, vulgar, and abusive chatter. Ilja Terebin insists that Ask.fm performs automatic and manual content moderation around the clock to keep out sexually explicit posts and derogaotry language. The screenshots above suggest otherwise.

But Terebin stands by the use of anonymity, which he said allows for "true content."

Ask.fm co-founder Mark Terebin responds to a question about his company's role in the suicides of two young Irish girls. Click to enlarge. Mark Terebin/Ask.fm

Parents in the know would probably disagree.

Ask.fm has been linked in the media to a handful of suicides. Irish teen Ciara Pugsley, 15, committed suicide in September of last year following months of online bullying, her parents said. Her Ask.fm account remains online, providing a twisted glimpse at the perverse questions she fielded before her death. Joshua Unsworth, also 15, allegedly ended his own life after being bullied on Ask.fm. The family of Anthony Stubbs, a 16-year-old suicide victim, believes Ask.fm is partially to blame and wants the site to be shut down.

Maryland Attorney General Douglas Gansler has urged advertisers to spend their money elsewhere. Ask.fm runs banner ads and sells sponsored questions. "This Web site is putting children at risk," he wrote in a letter to advertisers. "A growing number of children under 13 use Ask.fm because it makes no meaningful effort to limit underage access, and these kids are being exposed to malicious anonymous postings, including racial slurs, sexual references, drug use and personal assaults."

The Terebin brothers won't admit to any wrongdoing, of course. Nor do they seem motivated to make changes. Negativity on Ask.fm is just a reflection of society's shortcomings and a lack of proper education, they argue. Maybe so, but it's an unavoidable element of the anonymized zone. For now, a parent's best hope is that kids tire of Ask.fm and move on to the next app.