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formspring.me and Teenagers: A Painful Marriage

I love social media. I love Internet 2.0. I pretty much love all things technology. I embrace the positives of social media, and believe that as far as teenagers go, many of the negatives represent "teachable moments" for youth workers and parents to help guide teens toward learning how to make better choices.

I say all this to say this: I don't get formspring. And apparently, I'm in good company. Have your students caught the formspring.me wave? formspring is a free social media site where a person creates a user profile. Then, people (friends, acquaintances, perfect strangers) can submit questions for the user.

Yup, that's pretty much it. You have an account, I go to your account and I ask you questions about you. You can choose which questions to respond to and which ones to ignore. The ones you choose to respond to are made public along with your responses.

Now, this can actually be really fun, especially among friends. But what happens when these questions become darker? Sexually explicit? Threatening? What happens when they become abusive?

"Well," you say, "in that case a teenager would simply not post or answer those questions. Maybe they would even report the abuse." Well, that's where you would be wrong.

Here's the crazy thing about how teenagers are using formspring. In many cases, these users choose to post questions people have asked them that are derogatory, insulting, threatening, or otherwise demeaning. Questions that make illicit sexual advances. Questions that are personally harmful to an individual (Real example: "Why are you so [expletive] fat?"). Which begs another, more profound question: Why!? Why would teenagers choose to post questions (almost always written anonymously) that cast them in such a negative light?

By simply ignoring these questions, the user would insure that no one would see the questions. And the user would certainly not have to answer them. Social Networking expert Dr. Dana Boyd has a few ideas. For the most part, she chalks it up to teenagers needing to prove their toughness, or their resilience to such attacks. I think Boyd is probably correct. However, as she references herself, teenagers are not resilient to such attacks. formspring was one of the mediums the group of bullies used to torment 17-year-old Alexis Pilkington, who tragically committed suicide in March of 2010 as a result.

So what is the explanation? Why would teenagers share these types of questions with the world, much less answer them, when all they have to do is ignore them and they stay secret?

Honestly, I'm at a bit of a loss. As I said, I'm pretty plugged in. I live and breath this stuff. But this one gets me. It kills me to think of how much these questions must hurt. And then to see teens make this discourse public takes it over the edge. I would love to hear your thoughts on this . . .

Share your thoughts with the youthministry360 community:

  • Why do you think some teenagers choose to share questions that are obviously intended to threaten, intimidate, or otherwise hurt these teens?
  • Do you know if your students are using formspring in this way? Do you know if they have been the object of any of these attacks?

What else is on your mind? We'd love to hear your thoughts . . .

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