The suicide of a young British teen is renewing awareness of cyberbullying, with parents and anti-bullying advocates calling for an end to anonymous online harassment.
Fourteen-year-old Hannah Smith, of Lutterworth, Leicestershire, England, was found hanged in her bedroom on Friday, according to local site the Leicester Mercury. Her body was reportedly discovered by her older sister.
A police spokesperson told the site that an investigation was ongoing, but that the "death is not being treated as suspicious and a file is being prepared for the coroner."
In the weeks leading up to her death, Smith reportedly had been subjected to cruel taunts and insults on Ask.fm, a question-and-answer social networking site that allows anonymous participation and boasts 60 million users, around 30 million of them minors, according to The Guardian.
Some of the messages Smith received even told her she should kill herself, according to Sky News. Although Smith's friend Georgia Clarke told Sky News that the teen attempted to shrug off the nasty comments, her dad alleges they eventually caused her death.
The grief-stricken father, David Smith, told the Daily Mirror that something had to be done to stem the cyberbullying trend.
“How many more teenagers will kill themselves because of online abuse before something is done?" he asked. "These sick people are just able to go online and hide behind a mask of anonymity while they abuse vulnerable teenagers. ... When you’re sitting behind a computer screen you can say whatever you want and there’s no comeback. But these trolls need to realize that they are affecting people’s lives in the most horrific ways imaginable."
In the wake of the tragedy, the Latvian-based Ask.fm issued a statement expressing its condolences.
"We have reached out to Leicestershire police and would be happy to co-operate with their investigation into the circumstances," the statement read, according to the BBC. "Ask.fm actively encourages our users and their parents to report any incidences of bullying, either by using the in-site reporting button, or via our contact page. All reports are read by our team of moderators to ensure that genuine concerns are heard and acted upon immediately -- and we always remove content reported to us that violates our terms of service."
It is unclear just how closely Ask.fm's moderators can watch a site that, according to The Guardian, adds some 200,000 new members a day.
"Teens like Ask.fm because it's a largely adult-free chat and gossip zone, a place to hang out and mess around, incognito if they fancy, a long way from the more supervised, constraining environs of, say, Facebook," writes The Guardian. "At this point, Ask.fm becomes a kind of giant, instant -- and, critically, anonymous -- online truth-or-dare, with all its attendant consequences. Because like the playground, there's bullying on Ask.fm."
In an effort to prompt the British government to strengthen protections against online harassment, concerned netizens are circulating a petition asking Britain's Department for Culture, Media and Sport to "to step in and insist that Ask.fm and similar sites help us protect our young people." The petition goes on to condemn Ask.fm's policies: "[Users] are able to join from the age of 13 and can post anonymously. There is no option to block other users and only a basic 'report' button." More than 11,000 people had signed the petition by Wednesday morning.
The petition had previously been circulating via a Facebook page set up in honor of Hannah. Though the page had racked up tens of thousands of likes, as of Wednesday morning it appeared to have been taken down.