TIME Crime

Parents Say Teen Committed Suicide Over Viral Bullying Video

The video posted to social media allegedly showed the boy masturbating

A San Diego couple says their 14-year-old son took his life after a video of him allegedly masturbating in a school bathroom went viral. The parents have filed a $1 million claim against the San Diego Unified School District, arguing that a teacher, an administrator and possibly other faculty members knew the boy was being bullied over the video and did nothing to stop it.

Matthew Burdette committed suicide on Nov. 29 over Thanksgiving break. The wrestler and water polo player left a suicide note that said he could no longer “handle school” and that he had “no friends,” according to the claim, which KGTV-TV Channel 10 in San Diego first acquired.

Burdette was kicked out of class at University City High School on Nov. 15 for eating sunflower seeds. The teacher did not tell him where to wait, so he went to the boys’ bathroom, according to the claim. Another student in the bathroom secretly videotaped Burdette in his stall, allegedly masturbating. The video was then posted to social networks like Snapchat and Vine.

“From the moment the video was posted, Matthew was mercilessly bullied, harassed and teased by students who had seen the video. This continued for the next two weeks,” the claim said. The parents say they did not learn about the video until after their son’s death.

TIME Parenting

Kids Value Success Over Caring Because Parents Do

The co-author of a new Harvard study reveals what parents can do to increase their children’s caring quotient

Last month a team from the Harvard Graduate School of Education issued a study—based on a survey of 10,000 middle and high school students—which showed that teenagers value achievement more than caring, in large part because they think their parents do. The authors described a “rhetoric/reality gap” in which parents and teachers say they prioritize caring, but kids are hearing something different.

The study drew quite a lot of attention—most of it focused on this key finding: Eighty percent of the students chose high achievement or happiness as their top priority. Only 20% picked caring for others.

I recently circled back to co-author Richard Weissbourd, a psychologist, co-director of Harvard’s Making Caring Common Project and a father of three, to explore what parents can do to increase their children’s caring quotient.

1. Given economic realities today, it seems understandable that parents are focused on their children’s success. And yet the underlying premise of your study is that focusing on success is a problem. Why is that?

We are not making the case that achievement and success are not important. It is “Success at what cost?” that we are concerned about. We are seeing a rise in depression, anxiety and drug use in kids, especially in affluent communities. And a big factor is the pressure to achieve.

These kids are strung out. We’re also troubled that achievement comes at the cost of caring for others. In life we always have to balance our concern for others with our concern for ourselves. If you are playing basketball, you have to pass the ball. If you are studying for a test, it is important at times to help a classmate. But we are moving too far in the direction of self-interest.

2. You and your colleagues have created a guide to help parents raise “ethical caring kids,” Your first suggestion is to “make caring a priority.” How would you advise parents to do this?

It begins early in kids’ lives. When you’re at the playground, it means tuning into other kids and encouraging your kid to do the same—to reach out to a child who doesn’t have anyone to play with, for example. Ask your kids to write thank you notes; require them to be respectful to you and other adults; don’t let them fudge their community service; make them honor their commitments (if they’ve RSVPed yes to a party, make them go even if something more preferable comes along). It is the quiet, subtle, daily, steady stream of messages that parents give their kids that matter.

3. You say parents should “provide opportunities for children to practice caring and gratitude.” Can you explain?

Kids should pitch in as a part of everyday life and not expect to be rewarded. This means they should set or clear the table, do the dishes, pick up their clothes, take the garbage out. Save the rewards for uncommon acts of kindness, like helping a few neighbors dig their car out from the snow. Caring is like playing an instrument or a sport; you have to practice it all the time. That’s how it becomes deep in your bones—it’s how it becomes a part of who you are.

4. Kids naturally care about their family and friends, but you say parents need to expand “children’s circle of concern.” How do we do that?

It is harder for kids to care for people who are different from them: Boys may not care about girls. Privileged kids may not care about kids who are struggling. Kids may not care about people with disabilities. Teaching them to care for those who are vulnerable or marginalized is important in and of itself, and it also is the basis of justice. There are always opportunities to talk because these issues come up all the time—it’s about what’s on your radar. It’s not letting your kid treat the bus driver, or custodian or waitress as if they are invisible. It is the way in which you steer a conversation about the new kid at school, or point out an unkind act you witness on TV. It’s just noticing and having the conversation day to day.

5. You suggest that mom and dad each “be a strong moral role model and mentor,” for their children because kids learn by watching the actions of adults they respect. Can you elaborate?

One of the big pathways for kids to become moral people is that they want to be like their parents. Parents have to live these values—they can’t just espouse them. Teens especially have razor-sharp antenna toward hypocrisy; they are attuned to when we are not doing what we say. You have to be appreciative of the bus driver and the waitress. You have to help a neighbor. You have to not tell “white lies” a lot. And you need to listen to your kids and connect your beliefs and values to their moral questions. You also have to be willing to learn from them. Sometimes they are going to have a more mature moral understanding than you do. As parents we need to be able to admit our mistakes and talk about them. The goal is not to demonstrate that you are perfect. The goal is to demonstrate that you are an imperfect human being who is committed to becoming better.

6. Your final suggestion is that parents need to “guide children in managing destructive feelings.” What do you mean by that?

When parents around the country are asked how they help develop their kid’s morality, they usually talk about teaching kids right from wrong and core values. But the reality is that by the time kids are 5 or 6 years old, they usually know the values and have a general sense of right and wrong. The problem is that they sometimes have trouble managing their behavior when they feel angry or envious or ashamed or inferior or helpless. That’s what causes them to violate others. The key is to give kids a range of strategies to help them manage these difficult feelings—from teaching them to take a deep breath or a time out to learning how to ask for help from a trusted adult.

7. You and your colleague reported that 96% of parents from earlier studies say that developing moral character in children is “very important, if not essential,” but that 80% of the teenagers you surveyed said parents “are more concerned about achievement or happiness than caring for others.” Besides role modeling the right behaviors, what can parents do to make sure their kids are getting the message they mean to be sending?

Parents often tell kids, “The only thing that matters to me is that you are happy.” They are not saying, “The only thing that matters to me is that you are kind.” Changing course is about changing the steady stream of messages—verbal and otherwise—that parents are sending their kids. The truth is, our children’s moral development is much more under our control than their happiness.

8. The irony about your study is that although happiness is rated as more important than caring, most experts agree that caring leads to happiness. So should kids be more caring because it will make them happier?

I don’t think we should tell kids to be caring because it is going to make them happy. I think we should tell them to be caring because it is the right thing to do. But I also think that caring is going to make them happier in the long run, because when you are more empathetic, you have better relationships. And it is really deep relationships with people who you appreciate and who appreciate you that are perhaps our most important source of happiness in life.

I should also note that in our study,caring was ranked second by a high percentage of teens. Almost all kids say that caring is important to them. But it gets sidelined with all this pressure to achieve. It is evident that kids—and their parents—value caring. It just needs to be drawn out more. It needs to be prioritized. That is the encouraging part of this.

MONEY Careers

4 Reasons the Kardashian Moms Shouldn’t Feel Guilty About Working (and Neither Should You)

Kim Kardashian, Khloe Kardashian and Kourtney Kardashian
Kim, Khloe, and Kourtney Kardashian aren't your average working moms. Or are they? Omar Vega—Invision/AP

Even the Sisters K say leaving the kids behind to earn a living can be tough. Cheer up, Kim, Khloe, and Kourtney. Research finds there's an upside to balancing mommy duties with office demands.

Who knew I had something in common with the Kardashians? Surprise, surprise: The incredibly rich are not immune to working-mommy guilt.

While promoting their new kids’ clothing line on CNBC’s Closing Bell yesterday, Kim, Khloe, and Kourtney were asked to respond to the recent comments by PepsiCo CEO Indra Nooyi that women can’t have it all.

Whether or not you believe that what The Sisters K do actually counts as work—it certainly pays better than my job as an editor here at Money—their comments echo some of what I have heard from my fellow employed moms of the real world.

“There are so many times I just didn’t want to get up and work on something, I just wanted to be at home with my baby,” Kim said.

“I used to feel so guilty every time I left,” added Kourtney, who’s preggers with her third kid.

I guess this is proof that every working mom has had regret about leaving their child with a caregiver at some point or another. (Though if I had three, I would probably feel elated about going to work, not guilty.) But for those of us who are the family breadwinners and those of us who simply love our careers, we know we have to power through.

One way to beat back the guilt is to focus on the upside. And the good news is that there is a lot of research showing the benefits of being a mom who works (and this is not to vilify those who stay at home, who have the tougher job by my estimation). Remembering these four things helps me get through the tough mornings when my toddler breaks down in tears when I leave:

1. Working moms are healthier. A 2011 study from the University of North Carolina at Greensboro found that moms who work rate themselves in better health overall—more likely to say they feel “excellent”—than those who stay at home with their kids. This was confirmed by a 2012 paper from the University of Akron that looked at full-time working moms at age 40 who went back to work early on after having their children. These mamas reported higher levels of energy and mobility. I have to wonder, though, if either of these studies took into consideration what my husband and I have termed “daycare disease”—the family cold we pass between us from October to April.

2. Working moms are happier. Both the North Carolina and University of Akron studies showed that working moms exhibited fewer signs of depression than SAHMs. “Work is good for your health, both mentally and physically,” said Adrianne Frech, the lead researcher on the Akron study by way of explanation. “It gives women a sense of purpose, self-efficacy, control, and autonomy.” Additionally, a Gallup poll from 2012 found that moms who don’t work have higher levels of worry, depression, sadness, anger, and stress than those who do—which may speak to just how much harder that job really is.

But you don’t need a study to tell you that you’ll actually be happier if you’re doing something you like. I mean, just take it from an expert like Kim Kardashian: “You know, for me, and I think I can speak for my sisters, it makes us feel good when we are out working and we can provide something for our friends and products that, you know, we can’t find that we really want. And it just makes you feel productive.” Of course, a lot of this depends on being in the right job.

3. Your kids will not suffer for it. In a recent Pew study, 60% of Americans said children are better off when a parent stays home to focus on the family, but there’s a lot of data showing the opposite. Kids of working moms turn out okay—and possibly better depending on what research you’re looking at.

A 2010 review from the APA’s peer-reviewed Psychological Bulletin looked back at 50 years worth of studies on the children of working parents and found that those whose moms went back to work before the child turned three weren’t any more likely to exhibit behavioral or academic problems than those of moms who stayed at home. Among lower-income families, the kids actually did better on academic metrics. “Overall, I think this shows women who go back to work soon after they have their children should not be too concerned about the effects their employment has on their children’s long-term well-being,” said the study’s lead author, psychologist Rachel Lucas-Thompson.

Other recent research has shown similar results, including a 2014 study out of Boston College which found that kids of middle-class working moms are as well prepared for kindergarten as childen of moms who don’t work, and children of lower-income working moms are better prepared.

4. Your kids will still love you. For her 1999 book Ask the Children, Ellen Galinsky, president of the Families and Work Institute, interviewed 1,000 kids ages 8 to 18 and found that a mom’s work status wasn’t a factor in how the children assessed their parents. In fact, the relationship between the parent and child was more important than whether or not mommy went to a job.

Me, I’m reminded of this every day at around 6 p.m. While it’s awful to leave my kid in the morning—well, some mornings anyway—there’s nothing like the giant hug and sloppy kiss that’s waiting for me when I get home.

TIME Parenting

Even Super Hot Parents Who Only Make One Movie a Year Feel Guilty

70th Annual Golden Globe Awards - Arrivals
Actress Megan Fox arrives at the 70th Annual Golden Globe Awards held at The Beverly Hilton Hotel on January 13, 2013 in Beverly Hills, California. (Jeff Vespa--WireImage) Jeff Vespa—WireImage

Working mom Megan Fox says she carries "a lot of guilt" about parenting her two young sons

If even Megan Fox feels guilty about parenting, let’s just give up now.

The Transformers star told Parenting magazine she never feels like she’s the perfect mom to sons Bodhi, 4 months, and Noah, almost 2, even though she’s cut her moviemaking down to one film per year.

As a mom it’s hard because I don’t feel like I’m ever giving either one of them 100% of my attention or 100% of myself, so I carry a lot of guilt. Do they each understand how special they are and how much I love them? And are they understanding that they’re unique? It’s hard to make each one feel like an individual when you have to raise them together and manage them together all of the time.

Fox said she has cut down on her hours on the set so she can spend more time with her boys, but feels it’s important to keep making movies so that she can support them in the future (next up is Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, out in August.)

I’ve never been an extraordinarily ambitious girl or career-oriented, but especially once I got pregnant with my first son and now [having] my second, it’s so hard to be a working mom especially when your heart is not in your work, when your heart is with your family. I have to make one movie a year because I have to invest in their future and I have to be able to pay their way through college and be able to provide for them. I’m looking for movies that will shoot in Los Angeles, for projects where I’m part of an ensemble so I can shoot in and out in 10-20 days. It’s all about trying to spend as little time away from my kids as possible.

So she works 10-20 days a year and feels guilty? Gwyneth Paltrow knows how that is.

TIME Parenting

These Are the Most Stressed Kinds of Parents

stress
Albert Mollon—Flickr RF/Getty Images

Parents of teenagers and single parents are equally stressed, according to a survey

Being the parent of a teenager is just as stressful as being a single parent, at least according to a new survey. NPR, the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and the Harvard School of Public Health teamed up to poll 2,505 Americans about their experiences with stress in the past month. The nationwide survey found that the following groups reported the most stress:

People with poor health (60% reported high stress)

Disabled people (45% reported high stress)

People with chronic illnesses (36% reported high stress)

People with income less than $20,000 (36% reported high stress)

People who experience dangerous work situations (36% reported high stress)

Single parents (35% reported high stress)

Parents of teens (35% reported high stress)

The stresses associated with single parenting seem fairly obvious: trying to juggle many responsibilities on your own. But why is raising teens particularly stressful? One reason could be the looming cost of college: problems with finances was the number two overall stressor after “too many responsibilities” on the heat map of stress.

TIME Breastfeeding Wars

What Starbucks Tells Employees About Breastfeeding Customers

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A young male barista comes to the defense of a nursing mother winning accolades and some criticism as the story goes viral.

A Starbucks employee who defended a woman’s right to breastfeed in the coffee shop was not acting under instructions from head office, but on his own, according to the company.

In a sign of how supercharged the emotions have become about public nursing, a Canadian midwife’s tale of nursing her baby at a local Starbucks in Ottawa went a little viral in early July, getting picked up by news outlets around the globe. The story was, to many, a heartwarming one: after a woman complained to a young, male barista that another woman was breastfeeding without a modesty shield, the barista said he’d take care of it. However, instead of telling the nursing mom to cover up, he just brought her an extra coffee for having to deal with the unpleasantness.

This is not actually Starbucks’ official policy. In fact, Starbucks doesn’t have an official policy on breastfeeding, according to spokeswoman Laurel Harper. The cappu-chain does have an official policy about making customers feel welcome, Harper noted (several times). “We empower our local partners to reach a decision about how best to make a customer’s experience a positive one,” she says. (Starbucks calls its employees partners, because they all get stock in the company.) It was up to the employee to decide which customer in this case was going to have a less-positive experience.

The company also doesn’t have a policy on what to do if a customer comes and exposes different, less nourishing body parts, either, but does expect “partners” to be familiar with local law.

Not all of the reactions to the story, which was first picked up by woman behind the Canadian website PhD in Parenting, have been of the “Awww, good for him” type. For many people, public breastfeeding is akin to indecent exposure. They can’t understand why they have to be confronted by nudity. “I know it’s just life for the nursing mom, but seeing something partially exposed isn’t normal for everyone around them,” was one of the more moderate comments. “I’ve been in a few situations where I just happened to turn my head and my gaze caught sight of something I didn’t want (or mean) to see.” For others it’s an inoffensive as watching someone drink, say a Venti iced skinny hazelnut macchiato with an extra shot and no whip. It’s not their beverage of choice, but it’s not a big deal.

But perhaps because of the very primal urge mothers feel to feed their children, emotions run very high whenever the subject comes up and the right to breastfeed has become something of a cri de couer for mothers—and others—and Nurse-In protests are becoming more popular. One the most recent was at a Connecticut Friendly’s in June. If the actions of the young Starbucks “partner,”are any indication, the culture is tipping in the moms’ favor.

As for the 19-year-old barista in question, he hasn’t been named. Although you might be able to find him by looking for the mom in Ottawa with the biggest smile on her face and working back.

TIME Parenting

Study Finds Most Teens Sext Before They’re 18

A new study reveals that a far greater percentage of teens are sending explicit photos and texts at younger ages than previously thought. Here are tips for talking to your child about the consequences

If you’re a mom or dad and you learn that your child is sexting, that’s bound to set off alarms. But a new study reveals that the practice is quite common among teenagers, most of whom who think it’s no big deal. And that sets up an interesting dynamic in terms of how parents should handle the situation.

Researchers from Drexel University surveyed college students, asking them if they had ever sent or received “sexually explicit text messages or images” when they were under age 18. Fifty-four percent said yes—almost all of it in the context of a romantic relationship or as a means of flirting.

“We were shocked by the prevalence and the frequency of sexting among minors,” says David DeMatteo, an associate professor of psychology and law at Drexel and one of the study’s authors. He notes that previous studies have indicated the pervasiveness of sexting was much lower—around 20%.

DeMatteo believes that participants in the study may have been more honest because they were allowed to remain anonymous and were reporting on past behavior.

What’s more, while the authors defined sexting as sending or receiving “sexually explicit text messages with or without photographic images,” they allowed participants to define what “sexually explicit” meant to them. “A 13-year-old might consider a sext to be ‘I think your body is hot,’” DeMatteo explains. “Other messages were likely less gray, talking about sexual desire or activities and everything in between.”

Participants acknowledged sexting as young as 13, but the vast majority were 16 and 17 when they sexted. And very few reported negative consequences from their actions. Only 8%, for instance, said they endured humiliation or a tarnished reputation. To be sure, sexting can be used to exploit or intimidate—and there have been cases were teens have committed suicide as a result of such cyber-bullying. But fewer than 1% of respondents in the Drexel study reported being bullied as a result of sexting.

“We were struck by how many of those surveyed seem to think of sexting as a normal, standard way of interacting with their peers,” DeMatteo says.

All of which can make things tricky for parents, most of whom probably wish they simply didn’t have to deal with such an uncomfortable topic. Yet they should—ideally, as soon as a kid gets his or her first cellphone.

So, what do you say?

For younger teens, set a bright line. Tell them sexting is off limits—period. (For some families, this might be a real challenge, as indicated by another new study on the link between sexting and sex among middle schoolers.) Most of the time, those who are in middle school or even in ninth or 10th grade don’t have the experience to comprehend the impact that sexting can have.

“They do not understand how powerful it is—how other people might be aroused by seeing a provocative photo of them,” says Barbara Greenberg, a clinical psychologist in Fairfield County, Conn., with a focus on adolescents and families.

When it comes to older teens, however, recognize that sexting is often just a digital form of flirting. “It is the 2014 version of teens experimenting with their sexuality,” Greenberg says. “They are testing their level of appeal—something we have been doing for centuries.”

That said, you should make clear to your older kids that dangers exist. Remind them that anything they do online leaves a permanent record—one that may come back to haunt them later. What may seem funny or flirtatious in the moment may not feel the same way a few months down the road.

Remind them, too, that once they hit the send button, their words and images are out of their control. They can’t be confident that any sext will stay with the intended recipient. The Drexel study found that 26% of respondents reported that, as a minor, they had forwarded or shared a sext they’d received with a good friend, and 3% reported sharing it with a mere acquaintance.

It’s also important to tell your older kids that not all sexting is equal. If they’re going to insist on engaging in this activity, they should at least reserve their most explicit messages for those with whom they’re in a real relationship. Casual sexting, just like casual sex, is not a good idea.

Finally, be sure to tell your kids—younger or older—that sexting can have serious legal ramifications.

Most states do not have laws that govern sexting, so if a minor sends a nude or sexually explicit image to another minor, he or she can be charged under child pornography laws. (The Drexel study found that girls, in particular, are likely to sext photographs.) These statues typically carry severe punishments, including jail time and having to register as a sex offender. In the Drexel study, nearly two-thirds of respondents were not aware of this risk.

But many of those who were aware of the potential legal consequences modified their behavior. Indeed, one of the study’s central findings is that only 42% of those who were familiar with this threat had sexted as a minor, compared with 61% of their peers who weren’t clued in to the legal implications.

“Young people need to be educated about the consequences of sexting—legal, social and psychological,” DeMatteo says. “The more they hear the message, the more likely it will be to sink in.”

TIME Education

Why Pediatricians Are Prescribing Books

Temperature, Child
BSIP—UIG via Getty Images

Children under five years old see their doctor at least once a year, and the opinion of a physician often carries more weight with parents than that of a teacher or counselor.

Earlier this week, the American Academy of Pediatrics issued a policy statement recommending story time with mom and dad start in infancy: parents should be reading to their children, the group says, from the first days of their lives.

Research shows that one-third of American children start kindergarten lacking the basic language skills they will need in order to learn to read, a deficit that can ripple through all the years of schooling to follow. Reading aloud is one of the best ways to build such skills, but surveys find that only about half of low-income parents in the U.S. are reading to their children every day. Scientists have repeatedly demonstrated that better-educated people live longer and have a lower risk of disease than their less-educated counterparts. It makes perfect sense, then, that many pediatricians are adding a new tool to their doctors’ kits: books.

There are hurdles, however, in the way of many parents taking this advice: they may not themselves be literate, for example. A study released earlier this month by the Stanford University School of Medicine reported that immigrant parents and parents with low education levels or low household incomes were less likely to read to their children. In addition, poor families may not have access to books. One study found that in low-income neighborhoods, only one book was available for every 300 children, while in middle-income neighborhoods the ratio was 13 books for each individual child. And many parents may know that they should be reading to their children each day, but find that work schedules and other household activities get in the way.

Pediatricians make ideal conduits for the message that reading is important. Ninety-six percent of children under five years old see their doctor at least once a year, and the opinion of a physician often carries more weight with parents than that of a teacher or counselor. Taking advantage of this privileged position, a growing number of pediatricians are “prescribing” books to their young patients at each visit (some of them even write out the directive to read on a prescribing pad).

Many are doing so under the auspices of an organization called Reach Out and Read, which was founded in 1989 by a group of doctors at Boston City Hospital (now called Boston Medical Center). Over the past 25 years, Reach Out and Read has trained thousands of primary care providers to speak with patients about the benefits of reading. They have distributed millions of books through these medical partners. Each enrolled child gets a new, age-appropriate book at every well-child visit, from six months to five years of age. That means they’ll start kindergarten with a home library of as many as 10 books—and these are often the only children’s books they own.

When working with parents who are unable to read themselves, doctors in the Reach Out and Read program demonstrate how they can page through a picture book with their children, making up their own stories as they go. And when counseling parents who say they’re too busy or too tired to engage in story time at the end of the day, some physicians read aloud a book to their young patients right in the consulting room, to demonstrate to parents how quickly book reading can be accomplished and how much their children enjoy it. In another literacy-promoting program, developmental specialists at the Langone Medical Center at New York University actually videotape parents reading to and playing with their children; then the parents and the specialist watch the video together, a practice that encourages parental self-reflection and self-improvement.

Researchers who have evaluated the effects of Reach Out and Read report that participating parents are up to four times more likely to read to their young children, and that their children enter kindergarten with larger vocabularies and stronger language skills. Interestingly, families who participate in Reach Out and Read are also more likely to show up for their doctors’ appointments: yet another way that health and learning can work together.

Annie Murphy Paul writes The Brilliant Blog and is the author of the forthcoming book Brilliant: The Science of How We Get Smarter.

TIME Parenting

5 Things Parents Should Tell Kids About Anonymous Apps

Woman using a smartphone
Getty Images

Looking for privacy, teens turn to secret or ephemeral mobile messaging apps—here is what you need to know to keep them safe

Whenever I read a story about a teen who has committed suicide, egged on by anonymous online taunts from other adolescents, my heart sinks.

No doubt, in most cases the reasons for the child’s death are complex, and the blame cannot be laid solely on an app or website that was home to the bullying, or even on the awful youngsters who participated in it. And studies show that most kids who are bullied online are bullied off line as well.

As the father of a 14-year-old boy who killed himself earlier this year told TIME in this week’s feature about the site Ask.fm, a place where users can post questions and answers anonymously, his son didn’t commit suicide because of social media. But, he added, “it didn’t help.”

Here are a handful of things for parents to keep in mind as they try to navigate this difficult terrain:

First, understand that even “good” teenagers can succumb to peer pressure. Parents can’t assume their kind, sweet kids won’t participate in teenage meanness—especially if they think they can hide behind anonymous talk or ephemeral social network or mobile messaging sites and apps such as Ask.fm, Yik Yak, Secret, Backchat, Whisper or Burn Note.

And it’s important to note that almost any social media outlet or app can be made anonymous. Nameless bullying takes place on most of the sites that are popular among teens—all a user needs to do is create a profile on hugely popular platforms like Instagram or Tumblr with a username or handle that doesn’t ID the owner of the account. And because apps like Instagram are more ubiquitous than many of the other anonymous sites, they may be just as likely to host bullying. So it’s essential to make it clear that talking about someone else anonymously online in any form is gutless—and violates the fundamental value of standing firmly behind what you say.

“Anonymity poses specific problems because there is no accountability,” says Emily Bazelon, whose book Sticks and Stones explores bullying in the digital age. “No one knows who you are. It is an excuse to be mean without considering the consequences.”

Second, parents should tell their kids that their actions (or those of their friends) can have unintended consequences—sometimes with devastating results.

When you read about a teen who committed suicide after being bullied via social media, seize the opportunity to talk with your son or daughter about it. Explain that sometimes schoolmates can have serious issues that no one knows about—like depression or some other form of mental illness—and that these problems can be exacerbated in unexpected ways by bullying or even just joking around.

MORE: Read TIME’s special report on everything you need to know about bullying.

Third, parents need to make plain to their children that certain actions can have unintended consequences for them, as well. Tell them that “anonymous” does not mean untraceable; data never really disappear. Explain to your teen that if he or she does something “anonymously” that leads to harm for someone else, there could be a terrible cost, including legal actions.

Fourth, parents should remember that their children could also wind up on the other side of the equation—as victims. Let them know that if they become a target of cyber-bullying, they should talk to you or another trusted adult about it. Bringing the subject up before something bad happens will make them more likely to come to you when and if it does.

And finally, don’t be afraid to set rules—based on your teenager’s age, personality and level of maturity—about which apps they can download and which ones they cannot. Kids need guidance, and as the parent you get to make those calls. “My house, my rules” is perfectly OK.

As you set those rules, however, don’t completely dismiss the idea that anonymous apps and sites, used in certain ways, may actually have some benefit. Indeed, some experts maintain that teens are attracted to them precisely because they’re an antidote to the more public hyper-curated social networks such as Facebook, where they feel relentless pressure to put their best self forward—to always look good and to be smart, clever, funny and popular. And sometimes they’re a way to get support for problems that a kid might be too embarrassed to ask about using their name.

“Kids are gravitating to these apps because they are fun, fast, fleeting and a more casual way to communicate,” says Caroline Knorr, who writes about technology for Common Sense Media, a nonprofit that educates kids and families about media use. “And for most kids, it is harmless.”

At the same time, Knorr acknowledges that the anonymous nature of these apps enables some kids to act on their worse instincts. “But we don’t think that the technology is bad, or that parents should ban it,” she says. “Instead, we think parents should engage with the social media their children are using and teach them to use it in a responsible way.”

In other words, handling the latest technology comes back to one of the oldest rules of good parenting: Sit down and talk to your kid.

 

TIME Social Networking

Meet the Brothers Behind the Web’s Most Controversial Social Network

Ask.fm founders and brothers Ilya Terebin and Mark Terebin photographed at the Hotel Alberts top floor terrace and rooftop bar in Riga, Latvia, overlooking the city, May 2014.
Ask.fm founders and brothers Ilya Terebin and Mark Terebin photographed at the Hotel Alberts top floor terrace and rooftop bar in Riga, Latvia, overlooking the city, May 2014. Rafal Milach for TIME

In their first extensive interview, Ask.fm's co-founders talk about the deaths of teenagers who used their site and what they are doing to keep the anonymous social network safe

Ask.fm is one of the Internet’s biggest social networks. It also happens to be one of the least understood. Since its founding in 2010, the site has grown to 120 million registered users around the world, with 15 million in the United States alone. But it is best known for unflattering attention. Its critics call it an incubator for cyberbullying and even suicide.

In this week’s magazine, I wrote about Ask.fm’s founders and the rise of anonymous, mobile-optimized social networking, an innovation that has within the last five years overturned the life of the average American teenager. As part of the reporting for that story, I visited brothers and Ask.fm cofounders Ilja and Mark Terebin in their home city of Riga, Latvia for their first-ever extensive interview. Over the two days we spent together in late April, the brothers talked about life, their business, and their responsibility for the adolescent and teen suicides for which the site is especially well known in Europe.

The site is especially popular with teenagers: 42% of its users are under the age of 17. On the site, you can anonymously ask questions of registered users, shrouding your own identity in hopes of getting the most honest answer with the least judgment. There, millions congregate trading mostly harmless gossip. But on some pages, the site teems with vitriol, as teenagers anonymously harass and insult their classmates and neighbors. Since 2012, press reports have described Ask.fm as a factor in at least 16 adolescent deaths.

In in their interview with TIME, the Terebin brothers pushed back against critics who say their site is dangerous for kids. “I know of no case of suicide because of bullying on Ask.fm,” Ilja said. Instead he blames society. “We teach people to bully. Look at the media. Do you have muscles? You’re a cool guy. Are you fat? You’re a loser. Do you f-ck girls? You’re a cool guy. Do you not f-ck girls? You’re a loser. We can’t do anything about it, if parents are drinking beer, watching TV and reading celebrity magazines.”

“The media takes this story and bullies us,” Ilja says.

The brothers, who are surrounded by a small handful of young executives, run their 58-employee company together. Ilja, 35, is the CEO. Mark, 29, is executive board member and co-founder. They share an office—and most everything else, really. (They both dress like French film students; they both turned vegetarian after watching a documentary together.) It’s been this way since their childhood in Jelgava, a small city 25 miles southwest of Riga. There the boys, their parents, and their grandmother squeezed into a two-room apartment, typical, they say, of the austere Soviet days. Midway through Mark and Ilja’s formative years, the family relocated, with elation, to a two-bedroom apartment. And a clunky PC powered by a Pentium 120 did eventually make its way into their home. But the Terebins weren’t young techies. They were entrepreneurs.

Ask.fm offices in Riga, Latvia. Rafal Milach for TIME

 

Here’s our interview with the Terebins. It has been edited and condensed from multiple conversations.

So how’d you wind up starting Ask.fm?

Ilja: Mark was spending all his time on the Internet. I can’t say the same about myself. When we started Ask.fm, I hadn’t even used a social network. But I was in about it, because it’s the present, and of course the future.

Mark: I’m not a tech guy at all. But in Bulgaria, when the [real-estate] crisis was beginning, we were thinking what’s next? And we thought the Internet was something we could participate in. We didn’t know how to code, but we knew we could find people who think like us.

Ilja: It’s not necessary to be a cook to like food, you know?

Do you feel responsible for the bullying on the site?

Ilja: It’s like with the police. You can’t put a policeman in each apartment. But you need to install police that people can call whenever they have an issue. This is our responsibility, to have this available for our users, if they have bullying issues, if they see someone else being bullied. They can press a button, and we can punish whoever sent the bad comment or question.

What do you make of people who say the site should be shut down?

Ilja: This website, if you close it down, you will not have stopped bullying. It’s everywhere. It’s offline. It’s in schools. The bullying is by SMS, too, other social networks. And of course it happens on Ask.fm as well. But you can’t just close everything. Even if you close everything, you take down the Internet, you take down mobile phones—if the child is going to school, there still will be the problem of bullying.

But there’s a difference, isn’t there, between bullying that ends at the end of the school day and bullying that goes on whenever?

Ilja: So what do you want to do? Close down the Internet? The bullying would still happen. Why would you think the bullying would stop? And people say anonymity is a problem. But don’t forget about the people who need anonymity. Teenagers, especially, are afraid that their opinions will be judged by others. It’s sometimes important that they can ask questions anonymously. So don’t forget about these people as well. They need it.

Mark: Our audience values anonymity a lot.

When you see coverage that says the site contributes to the problem, how do you react?

Ilja: We’re doing our job. We’re making the system more and more safe for the user. We can be unhappy about many things that are written in the press; we disagree with many of them. But for the last year, it’s been our priority No. 1, the thing we’ve spent the most time on. We take it very seriously, safety. But we understand that there will still be problems with Ask.fm or any other social network. The media will always make a lot of noise about it. Very often the things that are written are not really fair or not really true. It’s written that there’s no report button—it’s been there since day one. There’s always been the possibility to switch off anonymity, to block an abusive user.

Do you get tired of what people are writing about Ask.fm?

Ilja: A little tired, of course. They bully Ask.fm. For example, the Malta case. Did anyone read the profile of this girl Ask.fm supposedly killed? There was no bullying on the profile—there was no bullying at all. But the media takes this story and bullies us. We’re an easy target. I know of no case of suicide because of bullying on Ask.fm. The Hannah Smith case, the Izzy Dix case—we gave the inquests all the logs, all the information. And we were not found responsible in either case. Sometimes people just want attention. Some people don’t have enough people caring about them, and so they scream for help. Please help me. People don’t realize, this is good for parents and teachers. When you read the profile of your child or your student, you can find out information that you don’t know. If you take the site down, the child would still be bullied, and no one would be able to know.

You seem to think it’s a societal problem.

Ilja: It is. We teach people to bully. Look at the media. Do you have muscles? You’re a cool guy. Are you fat? You’re a loser. Do you f-ck girls? You’re a cool guy. Do you not f-ck girls? You’re a loser. We can’t do anything about it, if parents are drinking beer, watching TV and reading celebrity magazines.

What would you want to say to parents whose kids have killed themselves?

Ilja: There’s nothing we can say to them; it’s too late to bring their children back. But we cooperate with the police on a regular basis. Do the Internet, cellphones and social media make it easier to bully people? Yes. But the problem is not where it happens. It’s about the people who make it happen.

Do you worry about your reputation?

Ilja: The bad PR has hurt us a little bit. But a lot of it isn’t true. They say we’re like Russian playboys, buying sportscars and yachts. That we’re millionaires. It’s all bullsh-t.

When you have the Prime Minister of England saying something needs to be done about your website, that must make you feel strange.

Ilja: It’s not strange. We understand why it happened. People are looking for someone to blame all the time, and we look like an easy target. We’re in Eastern Europe, without a huge budget or proper lawyers. So why not bully us and get some credit?

Do you wish you had thought about safety more in the early days of the site?

Ilja: This is not a good way of thinking, I-wish-I-had. You should think about the present, not about the past.

So what is the present like?

Ilja: We have many people who enjoy our product. And we do a good job for them. We help them discover themselves—not others, but themselves. I think it’s very, very important.

Are you sure you’re having that impact?

Ilja: It’s Eastern philosophy. The human being has everything inside him. But he should discover himself. Ask.fm helps young people to discover themselves. They will become more open-minded, they will have more freedom in the future. It’s very, very important for the present society. Everything society is trying to do right now is put the person in the box. And this is also the reason society is so much against Ask.fm. Because Ask.fm helps people put their heads out of the box. Young users especially. Older people, they’re f-cked up already. They’re interested only in silly things. Who will be the next president of Russia? Who will be the next president of the U.S.? The discussion is a waste of time. And their opinion doesn’t matter at all. It will happen without them. And it will not change their lives. Most things people spend their time thinking about are like this.

When did you develop this philosophical notion about what the site was?

Ilja: Not from Day One. It came step by step.

Mark: When you see how people interact on the site, you see how they start discovering themselves. Even us. Sometimes you get questions you have never asked yourself before, and you start thinking about these things. You enjoy life more than when you’re watching TV or movies or reading magazines.

But aren’t websites part of the intellectual narrowing you’re talking about?

Ilja: Yes, but not Ask.fm! It’s a very important thing to go deeper inside yourself. Everything around you doesn’t make you think. Most of what’s around you is created to keep you from thinking. Eat chips, buy beer, and watch football! But when you answer a question, you have to think. You have to bring your own thoughts about a topic, not just share something someone else wrote, or a video from YouTube that someone else created. You create your own thoughts about important things. Like, “When was the last time you smiled?” That’s an important thing. It’s way more important than, When will the next iPhone come out? This is crap. That’s a very stupid thing to think about, when the next version of some computer or telephone will come out.

Let’s go back to the beginning, how’d you decide on the concept?

Ilja: There was this website, Formspring. The idea, uh, it was their idea. We just liked the idea. We thought we could do it even better.

Mark: It’s not only because there were a lot of users there. We liked the concept of asking questions. This is how you explore the world.

Did you have a sense of how you were going to grow the site?

Ilja: At the beginning, because we had so little experience, we didn’t think about many things you need to think about before you start an Internet company. But that also makes it easier to start. We had some ideas about what to do.

How much did you guys put into the company?

Ilja: Me, Mark, and our cofounder Oskars Liepins, we put in around half a million dollars. That was all we put in for the first year and a half. Then Rubylight, an investment firm, came in, and invested an amount I cannot disclose. And they helped us with technology, too.

As a business, how are you doing?

Ilja: We became profitable a couple months after Rubylight’s investment, two years after we started. That’s pretty fast when you compare with U.S. companies. But they’re in a different situation–they know that there are funds that will give them money. For us, it was more difficult. There’s not a lot of venture capital coming to Latvia. But we did some valuation with experts, and the company’s worth more than a hundred million dollars.

What do you make of the big valuations for American companies and the market conditions that allow Snapchat to turn down $3 billion from Facebook?

Ilja: The market’s overrated. Of course it’s good for us. But social media has not proven its success yet as a business. It’s too early.

What do you anticipate happening in the sector?

Ilja: There won’t be one all-encompassing social network, like Google is in search. Facebook, Instagram, Snapchat, Ask.fm, we’ll all have places for different types of communication.

How have your lives changed since you started Ask.fm?

Ilja: Not a whole lot. It’s not like we woke up one day and had money; the process is very slow. We didn’t invent an application or anything.

Mark: Yes, It’s not like we created Flappy Bird.

But you do have more money, right? What do you spend it on?

Ilja: Vegetables, fruits. I have a nice apartment, too. The rent is about $2,500 a month.

Mark: I travel more than I used to. I went to Thailand, I go to the U.S. occasionally. It’s nice to escape yourself.

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