Special Reports

Web anonymity takes mean turn on Formspring

Thursday, September 16, 2010

There is no denying that one of the most dangerous features of the Internet is anonymity.

When 17-year-old Hannah Lipshutz first heard about Formspring.me through Facebook, she thought it was a cool idea; describing it as an interactive blog you share with friends. But after a few visits, Hanna realized a good idea had been hijacked.

"I had a friend who people would go on and they would block themselves and basically say you're I hate you, leave this school, just awful things," Hannah said.

So l logged onto Formspring.me just to see what we would find. Messages ranged from the very innocent like 'who's your favorite musician?' and 'how would you describe your personality?' to some comments that are pretty mean spirited like "is it true that you live in a 10 by 20 trailer?'

"It causes a lot of drama and high school doesn't need any more drama; we have enough as it is," Hannah said.

But schools and administrators believe the site causes more than just drama, in fact Hannah's school, the Woodlynde School in Strafford, even sent an email to parents warning them the site is dangerous and leaves them vulnerable to online predators as well as derogatory, slanderous, offensive and demoralizing comments.

"There are so many millions of people using these sites to not know who you are speaking to or answering questions from is a really dangerous thing," Dr. Chris Fulco of the Woodlynde School said.

"One way to describe formspring.me is it's the modern day version of the gossip wall in the bathroom at grade school," cybercrime expert Rob D'Ovidio of Drexel University said.

D'Ovidio says the site is a breeding ground for bullying and harassment. But unlike social networking sites like Facebook and MySpace, it provides no real communication value.

"They put in the place the protections that allow individuals to block communications that come from someone anonymously, but we know users aren't doing that," D'Ovidio said.

So how can you protect your kids?

D'Ovidio offers this advice:

  • Talk to your children about what is and is not appropriate online behavior.
  • Set up your child's accounts so you know their passwords.
  • Become familiar with the protocol the sites have to file a complaint.
  • Finally, don't take anything lightly. If your child comes to you complaining of online bullying or harassment, call the appropriate authorities including the police.

Action News contacted Formspring; they said the website operates with the same rules most popular social networks (like Facebook & Twitter) do. Users under 13 are not allowed. The age group from 13-17 does receive some additional safety messaging in their inbox. In addition, it offers privacy options safety tips and a 24 hour hotline to report abuse.

(Copyright ©2014 WPVI-TV/DT. All Rights Reserved.)

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