‘Self-bullying’ online a new phenomenon, safety expert says

Trend not yet identified as serious risk in Ireland

Ask.fm Europe’s director of trust and safety Annie Mullins said that children “writing to themselves” has become the “biggest” cyber-bullying issue that the network faced. Photograph: Danny Martindale/Getty Images.

Ask.fm Europe’s director of trust and safety Annie Mullins said that children “writing to themselves” has become the “biggest” cyber-bullying issue that the network faced. Photograph: Danny Martindale/Getty Images.

 

Young girls writing negative messages to themselves has become a new form of self-harm through social media, a global social network’s safety executive has said.

Ask. fm Europe’s director of trust and safety Annie Mullins said that children “writing to themselves” has become the “biggest” cyber-bullying issue that the network faced.

While the trend was not identified as a serious risk in Ireland, it had become an issue in a number of countries where “the most nasty horrid, awful statements” were being written by children to themselves.

“These we have begun to identify as quite a high risk of suicide,”Ms Mullins said.

The child protection officer, who received an OBE six years ago for services to children and young people online, was a guest speaker at last week’s Impact’s education division conference in Galway.

The self-bullying practice tended to be the most marked among girls between the ages of 13 and 15 years - a critical time for development, Ms Mullins said.

“I don’t think we fully understand it as a phenomenon, but it is certainly a very different issue,”she said.

Ask.fm, which is said to have 150 million monthly users, was founded in Latvia as a “social question and answer” website. Users have the option of sending each other questions anomalously.

Its tolerance of anonymity was heavily criticised when its use was linked to several teenage suicides in Ireland, Britain and the US.

The then Minister for Children, Frances Fitzgerald, wrote to the Latvian communications minster in late 2012 after two Irish teenagers, Ciara Pugsley (15) in Leitrim and Erin Gallagher (13) in Donegal, took their own lives.

The company, which has relocated headquarters to Dublin, has introduced new safety policies since it was acquired by IAC, owner of Ask.com, 2014. Prior to her appointment, Ms Mullins had spent more than 15 years advising the British government and non-governmental organisations on safety of adolescents online,

Speaking in Galway, she identified mental health issues and extremism as among the greatest challenges in ensuring young people’s safety.

Targeting of young people by Islamic State (ISIS) through social media was “enormous”, in that it was “highly sophisticated and very targeted”, she said.

Young children often felt more “alive” online, she explained, and were seeking help for issues, or using the internet for the wrong reasons and coming into contact with the “wrong people”.

She cited as an example a case in Galway which she dealt with recently, where a young boy from difficult family circumstances was harassing a girl on social media.

He was known to be quiet and shy, but had been able to “explore himself in a very different, aggressive way online” that was reflecting “some issues that were going on in his life”, she noted.

“People’s lives don’t just arrive at the internet on social media,” Ms Mullins explained. “They come with all the baggage... all the tensions, feelings and internal issues they’ve got in their lives,” she said.

Ask. fm had invested in safety, including filtering, moderating and tackling bullying, she said, but acknowledged that anonymous use of the network was still an issue.

Young people trusted the anonymous factor in allowing them to ask questions that they might not otherwise be able to ask, she said.

“In a world that is quite full of conflict at the moment... anonymity is quite important from a freedom of speech perspective,” she said.