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Oh what a tangled web we weave when first we practise to deceive

ONE death threat every month.

Young people log on to anonymous websites seeking affirmation, but responses invariably include vicious abuse
Young people log on to anonymous websites seeking affirmation, but responses invariably include vicious abuse

Vile messages urging under-age teens to drink bleach and being called a "f***ing whore" because of a hairstyle. These are just some of the examples of the dark side of the social networking site ask.fm used by millions of teenagers every day.

To many adults and parents it is hard to understand why anyone would want to log on to a website and face such abuse. But one 16-year-old Glasgow girl who regularly receives such messages on Ask.fm, the highly controversial anonymous question-and-answer website, says the positive remarks from her peers make putting up with threats and humiliation worthwhile.

"I know it's gambling with my soul," she says. "But the 10% of threats and abuse are worth it for the 90% of good comments." She did not want to be named.

It is psychological bargain centred on self-esteem, and not a little vanity. For every nine people who tell you anonymously you are beautiful, there is one person who wishes you dead.

The site has sparked huge controversy after being linked to the suicide of Hannah Smith, 14, who was found hanged at her home in Leicestershire last Friday.

The morning after she died, her father David Smith, 45, found messages on the site urging his daughter to kill herself, which were said to include comments such as: "go die, evry1 wuld be happy" and "no1 would care if ya died u cretin". Advertisers subsequently pulled out of the site, intensifying pressure on the Latvian owners to clean up their act.

"There's something not right with the world today if people can tell somebody to die so many times that they actually do it," Smith said.

Bullying has, sadly, always been a fact of life for kids - though until recently it mostly took place in the playground. Experts point out that thanks to modern technology such as smartphones there is no longer any guarantee of respite when the school bell rings at the end of the day.

And with ask.fm, the bullies can pursue you anonymously. Due to the anonymity of the site - recipients of messages have no idea who has sent them - teen users are also open to attempted grooming by paedophiles posing as children online. The 16-year-old girl to whom the Sunday Herald spoke said she saw echoes of self-harming in the site. 'Kids log on obsessively, complusively to ask.fm, often knowing they are going to be verbally abused and humiliatated - there is a kind of masochism to it all.

"It is a bit like the need to listen at a door when someone is talking about you - you know it is going to hurt but you have to do it anyway.

"I log on because frankly I want to read messages from all the boys who fancy me - it is flattering - or girls telling me how cool I am. But part of the deal is that there will also be messages from girls - and sometimes boys - saying I should kill myself. I get that kind of thing about once a month. The last threat was that I should drink a bottle of bleach because they didn't like my new hair style.

"You just try and blank them, but it can be hard sometimes. Other times, people will make up stories and try to cause rows with your friends or break up your relationship with your boyfriend. There are some pretty sick folk on ask.fm."

Jill Cook, manager of the helpline Parentline Scotland, said bullying had always featured in the top 10 issues about which parents were most likely to contact them, over the 15 years in which the service has operated .

But she added: "With mobile phones, children are not able to escape it at home, even on weekends.

"It is much more prevalent as a lot of children have smartphones or tablets now that they can access the internet or online with."

Cook also pointed out that parents are frequently in the dark about how to help their children as they are baffled by the technology.

"Often they know very little about how to navigate around the internet," she said. "I've even heard of some parents having to ask their children how to set the parental controls."

Part of the appeal to the 60 million users of ask.fm is that it offers an unpoliced zone to chat and gossip. The site allows you to create a profile and then ask or answer random questions. Crucially, users can do this anonymously, although such requests from unknown people can be blocked.

Questions are frequently banal, such as "what is your favourite song?" and "what countries have you visited?"; but sinister messages posted anonymously such as "do us all a favour n kill ur self" also appear with alarming regularity.

There are also deeply disturbing sexual questions, with young girls and boys being asked whether they have lost their virginity or what sexual practices they have been involved in. Gossip often turns into smears and defamation, and users often gang up on victims, hounding them mercilessly.

Anonymous messages flirting with users are common too. In all cases, an adult could be posting these comments while posing as a child.

Rather than simply an unpoliced gossip network, the site is often a Lord of the Flies-style playground where anything goes.

One 17-year-old Glasgow girl who spoke to the Sunday Herald said she tried out ask.fm about 18 months ago but within a matter of hours was disgusted at what she was seeing and closed her account.

'It was pretty vile," she said. "Sexist, abusive, threatening - just creepy really - and I had no wish to be anywhere near it."

Andy Phippen, professor of social responsibility in IT at Plymouth University and a research partner with the UK Safer Internet Centre, said: "I have had many conversations with teenagers asking why would you put yourself on a site where people can anonymously abuse you?

"Some young people were saying it has almost become like a rite of passage now - you have to put yourself on there to demonstrate you are strong enough to deal with it."

Rhiordan Langan-Fortune, 18, from East Lothian, said he used ask.fm for a few weeks at the beginning of this year after signing up because all of his friends were on it.

While most people were "mucking about", he said he was aware of cases where users had been left upset by remarks made and the anonymity of the site allowed comments to escalate quickly.

He said: "Obviously they were quite upset, but you see it [abuse] quite a lot on the internet.

"We have grown up with it now really, it is something that has always been there when we have been using computers.

"It sometimes gets a bit extreme - but it is something that is so rife it probably doesn't really shock us as much as it should."

The speed at which the issue has arisen in recent years is highlighted by Kyle Thornton, 18, chairman of the Scottish Youth Parliament. He said: "Even when I was 10 years younger, bullying was name- calling, it was done in the playground and was something that could be tackled that bit more. Now a lot of that has disappeared and a lot of it is online.

"A lot of young people feel powerless to do anything about it, because it is public and they don't know who is doing it."

Thornton called for action to raise more awareness among young people of where they could go to seek help and advice if they were being bullied online.

Hannah Smith's death is not the first to be linked to bullying on ask.fm. The suicides of two Irish girls, Ciara Pugsley, 14, and Erin Gallagher, 13 and two boys from Lancashire - Josh Unsworth, 15 and 16-year-old Anthony Stubbs - were also said to have followed online attacks. Horrifically, in some of the cases friends and family of those who died have then become the target of online abuse themselves.

Hannah's devastated father believes a strong response is needed. Speaking last week, he said: "Me, personally, I think ask.fm - the people that run it - should get done for manslaughter or murder because you try contacting them and they just don't care.

"They don't care that teenagers are dying and killing themselves. It can't be right. These websites should be got rid of. If nothing else, they need to be regulated."

The site, which is based in Riga, Latvia, did face a major backlash last week, with several major companies including Specsavers, Vodafone, Laura Ashley and charity Save the Children pulling advertising from the site.

P rime Minister David Cameron also waded into the debate, saying social networking sites that do not "step up to the plate" and tackle online abuse should be boycotted.

The site declined a request from the Sunday Herald for an interview. Last week, a statement from it described Hannah's death as a "true tragedy" and promised to work with police investigating the incident, including potentially revealing the names of anonymous bullies.

On Friday, it also announced it had engaged a law firm to carry out a full and independent audit of its site and safety features and would announce the action it plans to take based on the recommendations by the end of this week.

It added: "We are committed to safeguarding against bullying and harassment in all forms and would welcome the opportunity to collaborate with our colleagues across the industry to do this."

Elaine Chalmers, area manager for Childline Scotland, said shutting down such sites was not the answer - despite evidence of an alarming growth in online abuse.

Across the UK, Childline carried out more than 4500 counselling sessions with young people concerned about cyberbullying in 2012-13 - up 87% from the previous year - while calls about other kinds of bullying are slowly declining.

The age group most affected by cyberbullying was 12-18 year olds, accounting for 84% of counselling sessions, but 16% of sessions were with children aged 11 or younger.

Chalmers said: "As adults, what we struggle with is the idea that the internet is a community - it is like everything else. If you are being bullied in the park, does that always stop you going to the park? I don't think so. It doesn't stop you going to the park or the cinema or a youth club or a nightclub or whatever it is you do.

"We need to stop thinking about it as something different and understand that it is part of their world and we have to keep them safe in every part of their world."

Alison Todd, director of children and family services at charity Children 1st, also pointed out that if certain sites are closed down, others will fill the gap.

"It is actually the behaviour that we need to deal with because it will spring up in other places," she said.

"I don't think we can solve it by just focusing on a website, although clearly they do have a responsibility."

Professor Phippen believes the issue of bullying and abuse on such sites stems from a far wider problem in society, arguing many popular reality TV competitions portray abuse as a "positive thing" when the contestants are being judged.

"There are far bigger issues than just the online element - there is the culture of celebrity and all of those things as well," he said.

"To say that it is the internet's fault is detracting from the fact there is a bigger social problem here."

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