Last week, a Long Island high school senior committed suicide, and the website Formspring.me is suspected as a cause. Yet most parents don't even know it exists. Formspring is the latest cyberscourge for teens. It lets you open an account and allows your anonymous audience - usually your classmates - to communicate with brutal honesty. By which I mean breathtaking cruelty.
Formspring takes cybercruelty to a new low by making it appear consensual. You sign up for your own account, literally inviting others to bash you with their "honest" opinions. Because it appears consensual, it no longer seems like cybercruelty at all. It just becomes another avenue for teens to communicate, and it desensitizes them to what they're doing.
"I hate you," writes one peer. "You're slutty," opines another.
Account holders are always able to respond, and most act as if they don't care.
"I'd f*** you," muses one. "thanks I mean very blunt but still flattering," responds the account holder.
Remember, these are often friends writing the comments. To wit:
"I've known you for a long time. you're not even that good at soccer. you just had one really good season..."
As you might expect, cyberbombs like this usually launch the account holder into an extended freak out about who could have written it. Imagine walking the halls or sitting in class, never knowing who is saying what on your Formspring. Not exactly conducive to good focus on your studies, if you get my drift.
I suspect girls are especially vulnerable to Formspring for several reasons:
1. Most girls are passionately invested in their friendships and what others think of them. At the same time, they constantly second guess their peers about what they really think and mean. As I showed in The Curse of the Good Girl, the ubiquity of "just kidding" and the pressure to keep friendships conflict-free force lots of truth underground. Girls know it. Formspring gives you a perverse chance to "really find out what others think of you."
2. Many girls define social success as being liked by everyone. Despite my best efforts as a speaker, educator and mentor to tell girls that it just ain't gonna happen. Formspring lets hope spring eternal: you can open an account and maybe, just maybe, you won't get a mean comment. You'll be that girl who everyone really loves!
There is zero, and I mean zero, value in this website and no girl or boy should spend a minute on it. Formspring creates unnecessary emotional risks. It legitimizes cybercruelty and divorces kids from responsibility for their words. You can pretty much file Formspring along with wouldn't-it-be-fun-to-stand-on the-railroad-tracks-and-jump-right-before-the-train-comes and I'm-sure-no-one-will-notice-if-I-just-pocket-this-one-mascara.
So what to do? Here's what I suggest. Start a conversation with your daughter about Formspring. Ask her if people at school use it (don't start off by grilling her about what she does or she may scare and fly away). Ask her what she thinks of it. Then ask her if she uses it.
If she says yes, tell her she's banned for life from the website. Period. Here's what I tell kids when I suggest they to stop using it:
1. It's an invitation for people to be evil to each other without taking responsibility, which means people will exaggerate and even outright lie just to hurt you. 2. By inviting people to say harmful things to you, and spending time reading about it, you disrespect yourself. 3. There will always be haters. You will never be someone who is 100% liked by everyone. That doesn't mean you need to set up a website to catalog who those people are. Focus on the relationships that bring you happiness and security, not people who tear you down.
Even if your daughter says no one has ever said anything mean to her, hold your ground. It's only a matter of time.
If your daughter denies having an account, open your own account here (it's very easy) and begin searching for your daughter by her name. Most kids include their full names in their accounts. If you know me, you know I'm not in the habit of telling you to go behind your kid's back. You can imagine how dangerous I find this website if I'm urging you to do it at all.