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The mystery of Formspring

By Erik Sass

Social media encapsulates different aspects of human nature -- the good, the bad, and the ugly -- which seem to defy rational explanation. Case in point: Formspring, a relatively new social network that has spread, plague-like, among American youth. Launched in November 2009, it has quickly grown to about 14 million users per month.

Formspring's twisted appeal is based on curiosity stemming from adolescent insecurity: it allows members to pose questions which acquaintances answer anonymously, and with brutal honesty. For example: does my butt look fat? Who is talking about me behind my back? What are they saying? The answers can range from kind and helpful, to neutral, to cruel and malicious. Predictably, answers in the last category seem to predominate.

This bizarre network came to prominence after the suicide of 17-year-old Alexis Pilkington, a high school student in West Islip, Long Island, after she received a string of vicious messages on Formspring. Predictably, reports of bullying and cruelty have led to parents and teachers calling for some kind of ban on the site. This idea is a non-starter, of course, simply because it would be impossible to enforce. But it is also clearly misguided.

After all, however weird and savage Formspring may be, it's a voluntary activity: teens join the site and then post questions or solicit comments because they want to do so. No one is forcing them to sign up or participate, and they choose the questions. If they unleash a torrent of demoralizing abuse, it's because they asked for it -- and perhaps even relish the insults in that sadomasochistic, self-hating adolescent way.

Parents who want to prevent teens from using Formspring are totally off-base. The appropriate course of action, it seems to me, would be talking to their children about the site and pointing out, using reasoned arguments and commonsense, how completely useless and self-destructive it is. This conversation would inevitably expand from the site itself to the real problem of which it is merely a symptom: the unhealthy nature of adolescent social scenes, reminiscent of "Lord of the Flies."

I believe part of growing up is learning to transcend and even reject your social milieu when it is not a positive environment, even if in this results in emotional stress in the short term. One of the most liberating developments, in becoming a young adult, is the formation of a sense of self, accompanied by the revelation that it really doesn't matter what other people think about you. At this stage the individual will naturally lose interest in Formspring, or at least see it for what it is: a weird manifestation of the misdirected frustration and hostility which fills the sad, sad lives of these petty online assailants.

This article appeared on MediaPost as part of The Social Graf series. Read more about Formspring in the New York Times.

Are you aware of Formspring? Do you know kids that are using the social networking tool? How do they feel about it? Share your thoughts with The Online Mom!

Comment by Kimberlie, posted 8/27/2011, 6:47 PM:

As a seventeen year old girl, I completely understand the dangers of Formspring, and I have no desire to get one. I think that teens actually crave these heinous comments. It serves as an opportunity for them to defend themselves by spitting back a better comeback. It's a site for people who want attention. Who want to be seen as someone who can defend themselves, who just seem like they're too cool to care about what anyone else has to say. Which is a sort of paradox for getting the site in the first place. If you wish to see a similar article on this topic visit this site: http://www.radicalparenting.com/2010/04/15/next-teen-online-trend-formspring-me/. Radical parenting is a website that offers parenting advice on teens, written by teens!
Comment by cora waylen, posted 10/1/2010, 1:19 PM:

i know my grandaughter has a site on it,sometimes she tells me what they say to her, is there a way i can get on to spy ??on her site,shes been sucidal in the past ,help!!!
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