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What's one of the most important things to a typical tween or teen girl? Her friends, of course. And when it comes to her social circle, what do many girls care about more than anything? What their friends think of them. Enter Formspring, a comment-and-reply social networking site that lets kids post their deepest, darkest opinions completely anonymously.
Formspring was a running four-month-long nightmare for my daughter, her friends, and extended school community -- and we still battle my daughter's "need" to know what her friends post on the site. The kids were all being incredibly vicious to each other, as well as asking really creepy questions. What made it all creepier is that the questions could have been asked by the boy they sit next to in History ... or by a 40-year-old man, since anyone can access Formspring.
My daughter was so addicted that she kept reactivating her account behind our backs, even though the consequences were severe each time -- one week of no phone and no computer access. She kept saying "I HAVE TO know what people think of me!" That's Formspring's greatest danger: It preys on the number one concern of many girls.
The site describes itself as "helping people find out more about each other through sharing interesting & personal responses." But, in simple terms, Formspring is the present-day version of the bathroom stall on steroids, enabling the cruelest form of bullying with the greatest of ease. The comments and questions are typically nasty and humiliating.
Here are some Formspring posts recently copied from my daughter's friends' pages (multiple profanities omitted):
ur stomach hangs ovr ur pants
Your face looks like a turtle
Your friend Anne is going around telling everyone ur fake and bitchy
You should just go die
And in addition to the personal attacks, comments are frequently sexual in nature:
I want to bang you so hard
Name all the slutty things you've done
Signing Off -- And Staying Off
To an emerging teenager with a developing sense of self, a girl to whom popularity is paramount, reading posts on Formspring can become an obsession. We've chosen to forbid my daughter from using it, and she understands why. But we've discovered that it's really hard to get your kids off it once they start. One circle of friends is no longer using it, in large part because the parents got involved in policing it. But other friends are as active as ever, which makes it hard for her to stay away.
Spread the Word
Fortunately, Formspring is coming to the attention of parents, schools, and even industry experts. Renowned girl expert and best-selling author Rachel Simmons, who has written a must-read post called "What Every Parent Should Know About Formspring," has likened parental consent for Formspring to allowing your child to play chicken with an oncoming train.
We continue to work with our daughter and her friends' parents to help avoid the problems associated with Formspring. Here are some key lessons we've learned the hard way. Hope they work for your family, too.
Keep checking. It's nearly impossible to disable Formspring. Even after being "disabled," an account leaps back to life in full form with one click; once you've created a profile, you're met each visit with a question asking whether you'd like to reactivate your profile. Disabling and enabling an account is essentially the same as logging off and back on. The only way to truly erase an account is to send a ticket stating that you have been bullied or harassed. It's buried in the Help section, but you can access it here. But obviously, your child can just open a new account.
Talk to other parents. If you find out that your kid has been on Formspring, look through her list of connections for kids you know. Consider reaching out to their parents to educate them about Formspring (perhaps by sending a link to this article?). If they knew what it was, they likely wouldn't want their child on it.
Get the word out. Launched in late 2009, Formspring already has more than 20 million accounts and 3.5 million unique visitors every day. The company recently received $11.5 million in funding. It's not going away. Yet it's so new that many adults aren't even aware of it. Help spread the word to educators, administrators, coaches, clergy, and other adults working with teens.
To learn more about cyberbullying, visit Common Sense Media.