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Do your kids know Formspring? Teachers concerned about site's mean streak

By Virginia Rohan

The Record (Hackensack N.J.)


"Are you gay?"

"Are you a virgin?"

"You are the creepiest person I know and you should know who this is."

These anonymously posed "questions" — one not even a question — were plucked recently from different Q&A exchanges on, a fast-growing social networking site whose popularity among high school and middle school students is ringing alarm bells for local parents, psychologists and educators.

The six-month-old website, which bills itself as "a great way to interact with friends and learn more about the people and topics you're interested in," invites users age 13 and over to pose questions (or comments) to account-holders without identifying themselves. It also invites everything from unkind remarks to sexual harassment to cyber-bullying, critics say.

"The moment you don't have to take responsibility, that you aren't identified, things will come out that wouldn't come out face to face," says David Lowry, head of The Elisabeth Morrow School in Englewood, who, after hearing of some parents' concerns about the site, last month sent a letter to all middle school students' parents to alert them about Formspring. "It gives rise to the possibility of a number of kids picking on one kid, because these are virtual worlds, so it doesn't have to be all the kids in one class that know each other. ... It just stretches, theoretically, around the globeIn the old days, kids in junior high might anonymously write a note, make a prank phone call (before Caller ID) or evaluate other students' failings in a Slam Book. Now, Lowry says, "this technology makes it so much more intense, so much more possible and so much faster."

Formspring, says popular-culture Professor Robert Thompson, is part of a wider societal trend that reflects how America — from the '60s through the current "confessional" reality-television era — has progressively become a "let-it-all-hang-out" society.

"You used to buy a diary and it would come with a key and you didn't want even your best friend to ever see it," says Thompson, who teaches at Syracuse University. "Now you go to seventh grade in the morning and you're bragging that you got 35 hits from anonymous people on your blog, which is confessing the most intimate things in the world."

Ridgewood middle school Principal Anthony Orsini called Formspring "one of the newest Internet scourges" in that widely publicized April e-mail he sent parents urging them to get their children off social networking sites.

"When we've gone to (Formspring) and put in the names of our students ... we saw lots of stuff that would fall legally under sexual harassment," says Orsini, principal of Benjamin Franklin Middle School. "Once someone says that someone's a slut or a whore or whatever it is, you can't take it back. It's going to emotionally damage that (child), no matter how tough they are. If we adults were called that, we'd have a very difficult time with it."

Orsini says he also saw lots of "vitriol" and "anti-gay epithets."

Formspring already has more than 28 million people who visit the site each month, half of them in the United States, and 24 percent of its users are between 13 and 17, according to published figures attributed to Quantcast, which analyzes Web traffic. Setting up a Formspring account is free, and people can widen the potential audience by linking it to their Tumblr, Twitter or Facebook accounts. The site received unwelcome publicity in March, when it came to light that Alexis Pilkington, a 17-year-old soccer player from West Islip, N.Y., who committed suicide, had received vicious online taunts, many of them on Formspring. Sharon McGovern Wolbert, a child and adolescent psychologist in Ridgewood, N.J., says she's very concerned about the anonymity that people hide behind on such sites.

"This is not building the ability to confront someone in an assertive way. Say someone had done something mean or unkind to you; posting something anonymous is kind of a cowardly way to (address) it," she says. "You're not having to own up to the face-to-face interaction with the other person."

Being on the receiving end of such comments can be particularly tough for young adolescents.

"I always feel like middle school or very early high school is, for the most part, the most vulnerable time," Wolbert says. "By later high school, kids have their own friends, they have a group, they know where they stand ... but when a kid is in seventh or eighth grade (they wonder): 'Am I ugly?' 'Where do I fit in?' 'Does everyone hate me?' They're trying to figure that out."

Middle-schoolers can also be impulsive in posting anonymous comments, Lowry says.

"These kids, 99.9 percent, are basically good kids who are behaving very badly," he says. "Things escalate. Somebody says one thing, your feelings get hurt, some kid comes up with something stronger, and the next thing you know, everyone has shot themselves into the stratosphere of incredible name-calling, hostility and hurtful things.

"And you see, kids are so vulnerable that they care who it is (writing these things). They want to know who it is. They almost get addicted to finding out."

Even older students can have a hard time dealing with what's been posted.

Julisa Isom, a 17-year-old junior at Rosa Parks High School in Paterson, N.J., opened a Formspring account in February so she could find out what people thought about her. She closed it at the end of March.

"At first, it was like, people were asking basic questions like, what school I go to and how do I like such and such, but then, the questions started getting out of hand," Isom says. "They started asking questions about my sex life, if I had one, about my past relationships. Some things weren't even questions. People were just stating things that were inappropriate. So I just disabled the account."

Melanie Barovick of Fair Lawn, N.J., also 17, was bothered by some of the rumors, untruths, and "personal" and "pointless" things that people started posting on her Formspring account.

"People can either be really nice or really mean," says Barovick. "(Since) I changed the settings so that only a person that leaves their name can comment ... I haven't gotten most any comments."

Other websites out there make Formspring seem relatively tame.

Thompson says many of his college students frequent, on which a person can be "randomly hooked up to somebody who is on the computer." It's all anonymous, and there's generally a video component to it. "On any given session, you'll find somebody who'll be juggling, someone else will be performing something. A lot of them are naked," Thompson says. Where will it all end?

Thompson believes that such anonymous interactions may begin to change our very culture.

"Once we get used to being in that flaming mode, once you do it for a while on the Internet and then you become comfortable — you get the vocabulary, you get the attitude — it's probably not that big of a step for some people to then start doing that in other more face-to-face contexts."