In September, after a year of being bullied online, Rebecca Sedwick threw herself off a three-story cement silo, sparking an international freak-out over the responsibility social media networks like Ask.fm have in fostering this kind of harassment. But for Rebecca’s family, friends, and neighbors, the problem isn’t technology or opportunistic startups — it’s people.
Five weeks after Rebecca’s death, Lakeland Sheriff Grady Judd arrested two girls from Crystal Lake Middle School and charged both with aggravated stalking, a felony. Although they were minors, Judd released their names: Guadalupe Shaw, a 14-year-old who went to school with Rebecca, who was the purported ringleader, and 12-year-old Katelyn Roman, her accomplice. Judd claimed they had organized a network of up to 16 other teenagers who verbally and physically threatened Rebecca in school and then bombarded her social media accounts — particularly via her Ask.fm page and an app called Kik Messenger — with cruel comments, many urging her to kill herself. And that was what elevated Rebecca’s story from a small-town tragedy to global cautionary tale for an unchecked epidemic of cyberbullying.
Both Kik and Ask.fm are especially popular with teenagers desperate for more private social networks than Facebook, which is to be expected — teens don’t want to hang out with their parents, especially on the internet. Kik Messenger is a mobile instant messaging app that gives users a discreet way to chat and share videos and pictures. According to figures from this spring, more than 200,000 people sign up for the Kik app daily, and 50 million currently use it. Kik connects users with Facebook friends and people in their phone’s address book, giving them the ability to anonymously message one another. Friends and family say Rebecca often wasn’t even sure whom she was being bullied by.