Social network’s anonymity becomes weapon for bullies

On the last day of Mini-Course Week, Friday, March 25,  Academy students spent their morning in “Rachel’s Challenge” presentation and activities, signifying the importance of solving bully problems that may arise on campus. The following opinion is relevant to this recent Academy activity. 

WASHINGTON — In waves throughout the school year, counselor Julia V. Taylor has found herself consoling students who have been taunted — often anonymously — on the social networking site

“We say this happens outside of school,” said Taylor, of Apex High School in Raleigh, N.C. “If they’re in my office and they’re upset about it, it’s affecting school.”

The site’s creators took the popularity of online quizzes and created an entire social network devoted to asking questions, with the premise of getting to know one’s friends better, Formspring spokeswoman Sarahjane Sacchetti said. Created in November 2009, the site has attracted 23 million users, about a third of them ages 13 to 17, who generate about 10 million posts a day.

But like other social networking spaces, some teenagers have taken advantage of Formspring’s anonymous features to insult and harass people in ways they might not in person. As a result, Formspring has become the newest battleground for school administrators and guidance counselors like Taylor who already feel they are losing the war against cyberbullying — and who are under greater pressure to address situations that begin off campus but end up affecting students at school.

“It’s the online version of truth or dare — without the dare,” Taylor said.

An individual’s Formspring page is simply a string of answers to questions, which may come from a friend or from someone they’ve never met. What makes the site different from some other social networks is that users can post questions without revealing their identities.

An individual profile reads like an interview. The user can choose which questions to respond to, and those questions are private until they are answered. Users can also choose whether to accept questions from people who hide their names.

“Some of the teens were misusing the hide-my-name functionality, thinking they could say anything to each other,” Sacchetti said. Some have been labeled gay by their tormentors. Others have been called ugly, fat, stupid or worse. They have been told not to show up at school, to die, or to kill themselves. The mother of a Canadian teenager said taunts on Formspring, including at least one that suggested the girl kill herself, contributed to her 15-year-old daughter’s suicide in January.

Even if students have been burned, they often don’t have the willpower to disconnect from the website that was the source of the insults.

“It’s the reality TV fad: You want to be where the action is,” said Justin W. Patchin, an associate professor at the University of Wisconsin, Eau Claire, whose research focuses on how adolescents use and misuse technology and one of the co-founders of the Cyberbullying Research Center. “I’ve heard other students tell me they feel it’s safer to be on these sites with their bullies. They can see what they’re saying about them and maybe win them over. From the logic of a teenager, it makes sense.”

Or, as Taylor put it, “It’s a drug. It’s like online crack.”

But Sacchetti said that, in practice, most of the questions asked on Formspring, about 75 percent, are done with users’ names attached. And if users get questions they don’t like, the questions are private and can be deleted, and the user can also block a person from asking any more questions.

While counselors, including Taylor, criticize the anonymous options on Formspring, Sacchetti said the ability to cloak one’s identity can prove useful in some situations. For example, students can ask colleges questions about the admissions process that they might be otherwise too timid to ask.

The challenge for educators is that Formspring’s growing popularity comes as federal officials ratchet up pressure on school officials to address bullying of all kinds among students. Late last year, the U.S. Department of Education sent school districts letters that said the districts could be violating students’ civil rights if they don’t address bullying they know about, or reasonably should have known about.

The Education Department expounded on that directive this month in a letter to the National School Boards Association, which had asked, among other things, how schools can address online harassment that begins off campus and discipline those responsible. In its response, the Education Department said the objective isn’t always discipline — which could violate a student’s First Amendment right to freedom of speech. Schools can instead counsel both the victim and the aggressor, have schoolwide discussions about appropriate behavior online, and teach students about civil rights and tolerance, the response said.

“I think that the whole confusion over whether or not schools get involved has to do with the unresolved question of when a school is able to discipline a child for off-campus speech,” said Elizabeth Englander, director of the Massachusetts Aggression Reduction Center at Bridgewater State University. “There are many, many things (schools) can do besides disciplining the cyberbully. They need to be involved in the education issue. Their responsibility is to help children who are being traumatized and educate children who are engaging in risky behavior.”

She said schools can counsel victims and talk with students accused or responsible for bullying, even if the acts happened off campus.

The conversation could go something like this, she said: “Let’s have a talk. We’re not here to discipline you. We’re here to tell you that we’re concerned you could potentially be doing something that’s illegal.”

Formspring reminds Jill Joline Myers of the now-defunct website JuicyCampus, which allowed college students to post gossip anonymously. Myers is an associate professor at Western Illinois University who co-wrote “Responding to Cyber Bullying: An Action Tool for School Leaders” and teaches criminal procedure and civil liability for law enforcement.

In training sessions with school administrators, she emphasizes that they should limit discipline for cyberbullying to incidents that result in a “substantial disruption” at school.

For its part, Formspring is cooperative with schools and police when reports come in about threatening posts, although Sacchetti said “it’s rare that the threat is real.” The site can ban people who abuse the service. “People simply need to report it to us,” she said.

But that process can be slow, in part because the size of Formspring’s staff hasn’t kept up with its popularity. The site has just three people in its complaint department, said Karthik Dinakar a research assistant in the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Media Laboratory, which is part of a recently formed partnership with Formspring aimed at combating bullying on the site. Dinakar said the work would help filter posts the way current spam filters trap vulgar or scam emails, but the software would go further.

“We would create a computer database of about a million statements of common knowledge: You sit in a chair. You drink water from a cup,” said Henry Lieberman, a principal research scientist in the lab. This “common sense” database could help determine if a comment is derogatory. For example, a comment about someone eating six hamburgers, which would be unlikely, might be an insult implying someone is fat.

In addition, the team is working on a system that could flag or inform a user that a statement that person is posting may be perceived as mean, said Birago Jones, an MIT research assistant also working on the project. The user might be informed how many people in the network are going to see the comment and how quickly it could spread. That might trigger the person writing the post to think twice.

At the White House conference on bullying this month where the partnership between MIT and Formspring was announced, Lieberman said the discussion centered on what the rules should be for students using social networks and how to deal with cyberbullying after the fact.

“They were all treating the software as if it was some fixed thing no one could change. We were astonished” that no one was considering technological cyberbullying solutions, he said. “There’s a lot you can do that could help the problem.”


(Education Week,, is a publication of the independent, nonprofit Editorial Projects in Education Inc.)


(c) 2011, Editorial Projects in Education Inc.

Distributed by McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.


ARCHIVE PHOTO on MCT Direct (from MCT Photo Service, 202-383-6099): FORMSPRING-BULLYING

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Social network’s anonymity becomes weapon for bullies