Experts warn parents of the lure of teen social sites

BABYLON, NY. THURSDAY MARCH 25, 2010. Family and

BABYLON, NY. THURSDAY MARCH 25, 2010. Family and friends gathered outside Boyd Spencer funeral home in Babylon during a memorial service for 17-year-old Alexis Pilkington who killed herself during the weekend. (Credit: Newsday/Alejandra Villa)

When Victoria Woods of Bethpage recently happened upon her 16-year-old daughter's laptop, left open on the girl's page on the popular Internet site Formspring.me, she was enraged by what she found.

Nasty comments, written anonymously.

The site's users invite anonymous questions. But Woods later found out that her daughter had been so shocked by the first anonymous comment she got that she wrote, "You must have the wrong person."

The reply came: "I have the right person," followed by an epithet.

"I've told her how dangerous it is to share information and accept questions anonymously . . . but it's very hard to get through to them," said Woods, who has lodged her complaints with the Web site and plans to push hard for changes.

The surging popularity among teens of social networking sites that allow users to post anonymously has students and parents alike questioning why youths would subject themselves to conversations that often turn so ugly.

"They want to be accepted, everyone else is doing it, they thought it would be harmless," Woods said. "It's so scary."

Pushing boundaries

Psychologists and cyber-safety experts say a Web site like that plays to the adolescent need for social joining, risk-taking and boundary-pushing behavior.

"It's all relationship stuff, it's about provocative, seductive kinds of things," said psychologist Joel Haber of White Plains, an anti-bullying expert. "People are asking questions that push the boundaries, and if your friends are doing this and having fun with this it doesn't feel wrong . . . it's a way to get popularity, attention, to be noticed."

Even the nastiness is a "boundary crosser" and when a person already is part of that group, "it's harder to pull back," he said. "Lines get crossed and sometimes kids can't handle it. That's the downside."

The family of Alexis Pilkington of West Islip, who committed suicide last weekend and had been using Formspring.me in the days leading up to her death, is quick to point out that they believe such mean-spirited comments had nothing to do with her death. She had been in counseling for personal issues.

But when people started to anonymously post malicious messages on an online memorial Web page on Facebook, her friends and their parents were outraged. Some were so angry at the previous comments on Formspring.me that they organized a boycott of the site and a petition drive against it and other sites that allow anonymous postings.

Many teens, however, say sites like Formspring.me serve a good purpose as well.

"Formspring provides a vehicle to say certain things. The fact that it allows people who say it anonymously is not a reason to ban it," said Michael Liegey, 18, a senior at Walt Whitman High School in Huntington.

John Wechsler, the president of Formspring.me, and spokeswoman Margit Wennmachers could not be reached Saturday for comment.

In response to the recent controversy, Formspring.me on Friday revised its settings to permit users to block all anonymous questions or to accept only those anonymous questions that come from others logged on to the site and whose identity can be traced.

A blog posting on its Web site about the changes explained why unrestricted anonymity remains an option for users: "Anonymity is a feature that encourages dialogue in situations where one might not be inclined to communicate otherwise. . . . Unfortunately, there are people that misuse the system and abuse anonymity to harass others. Since formspring.me launched, we've been working on finding the right set of tools and options for users to protect themselves from abuse, while keeping room for all the positive things that can come from using formspring.me."

Cyber-safety efforts

While Formspring.me users easily can delete their accounts, many opt to endure harassing comments because they are loath to give up a "major communication tool," said Parry Aftab, executive director of the group WiredSafety, which identifies itself as an "Internet safety, help and education resource." WiredSafety in 1999 started a cyber-safety research and education group of teen volunteers called Teenangels.

Casi Lumbra, a senior at The Ursuline School in New Rochelle and a member of Teenangels there, said that Formspring.me's anonymity is a major part of its appeal.

Kids may think that "anonymous comments will make things easier, that someone they like may feel more comfortable opening up to them if it's anonymous," she said. "A lot of kids hold out hope that the questions and statements they receive will be nice."

However, she added, "of all the people I personally know who have Formspring pages, everyone has received nasty comments, and only one has stopped using the site because of them."

West Islip High School senior Anthony Mormando, 18, who described himself as a close friend of Alexis Pilkington, said she introduced him to Formspring.me. The site's allure for many, he said, is that it allows users to post comments anonymously.

"I feel like the whole anonymous thing isn't good," he said. "I mean, I don't think it's good, because if you have to say something you shouldn't have to hide behind a Web site."

Popular choice

Formspring.me is a teen favorite now, but MySpace and Facebook also have applications that permit anonymous questions, and other sites catering to high school or college kids are emerging. One in Maryland breaks down by state, county and school, and allows anonymous comments about anyone.

On his blog, a Washington state English teacher asked, "Do your kids use Formspring.me?" and asked teens to describe its appeal.

One girl replied, "I guess for a teenager it's so appealing to know how others feel about you . . . it's becoming so bad that me and friends go to Formspring before we go to anything else on the computer, usually hoping/dreading that we have something in our inbox, just thinking 'What will they say next?' "

Another girl said, "It's good to know what other people think of you and some people come up with really good questions that get you thinking."

Lumbra said that teens often don't block, delete or refuse to answer offensive questions - although they have that option - because they think they have to answer or defend themselves against an attack.

"They do swing back with equally harsh words," she said. "That's how these questions snowball out of hand."

On the other hand, people can enjoy being questioned, and crafting answers for all to see.

"The fact that someone would take the time to ask the question is flattering, if the comments are flattering," she said. "It's a little extra attention that might give you a boost of self confidence."

With Chau Lam

PHOTOS: Friends mourn Alexis Pilkington

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