SINGAPORE: Cyberbullying among the young is spreading like a virus here, and it is being underpinned by a culture of silence and inaction.
In the latest survey of the issue, three-quarters of the children and teenagers in Singapore said they had been bullied online, and almost all of the victims did not inform their parents.
The vast majority did nothing in response to the bullying, even though the results of the survey - commissioned by the Mediacorp programme Talking Point - show that such incidents are not as harmless as the youngsters had thought. (Watch the episode here).
The overall finding on the prevalence of cyberbullying suggests that much has changed, in tandem with the social media landscape, since the last large-scale study was done.
In 2014, the Singapore Children’s Society and the Institute of Mental Health surveyed more than 3,000 students aged 12 to 17, and reported subsequently that one in nine adolescents had been victims of cyberbullying.
With the growth in social media platforms and usage since then, Talking Point commissioned a new survey and interviewed 353 youths, mostly between the ages of 13 and 19, in the street and from door to door.
Their responses alone are a reason for worry, Coalition Against Bullying for Children and Youth founder Esther Ng said on the Talking Point special.
She believes children’s unsupervised access to technology and websites is fuelling this trend. She added: "You can put a nanny programme in (a smartphone), but still you can’t stop someone from (being a cyberbully)."
But what is stopping children from telling their parents about it? Only 3 per cent did so.
WATCH: The findings in a nutshell (2:01)
WHEN SILENCE IS NOT GOLDEN
By far, the main reason they gave for not saying anything about such experiences was that they did not want their parents to know about their personal life online.
When asked about this, 14-year-old Jolin Lim said: “It’s too personal to tell people about cyberbullying.
Some parents don’t really understand the child … Like my parents would just say, ‘Very common, so just deal with it or fight back.’
Respondents’ belief that their parents would suggest they ignore the cyberbullying was the second reason for their wall of silence. And the third was that they did not want to get into trouble by telling their parents about it.
Media and communication professor Lim Sun Sun, from the Singapore University of Design and Technology, thinks another rationale could be weighing more on their minds than they might admit.
“They’re afraid that their parents would cut access to technological devices," she said.
Parents could look out for signs that their children are victims, as 38 per cent of cyberbullying victims said they were affected by the experience.
Chief among the negative effects were a loss of confidence, a preference to be alone and less interest in going to school.
Prof Lim said one of the biggest challenges of parenting today is that “the parent might not be able to fully realise the impact of these technological communications platforms on their children’s lives”.
"So the advice that they give their children may therefore seem a little bit misplaced."
9 IN 10 VICTIMS TOOK NO ACTION
Young people, too, may need to square up to reality. About 89 per cent of victims said they took no action against the bullying, mainly because they thought it was harmless.
Among those who have observed cyberbullying happening to someone they knew, 83 per cent did nothing. As it turned out, however, fewer victims (62 per cent) could ultimately say the cyberbullying did not affect them.
Janelle Koh, 15, who was recently targeted, admitted to having a lower self-esteem after that. It took her three weeks to walk out on the “friendship”. She said:
(People) think it’s a point of weakness to ask for help … (and) would think, ‘Ah, it’s normal’, and they just brush it off. But it’s affecting them down inside.
Ms Ng’s advocacy group had a case last year of a boy whose trousers were pulled down in the toilet and it was filmed on a phone. He was frightened that the video clip would be put online.
“But when I asked his parents to bring him in, to talk and to report to the school immediately … he said the bullies would actually do more harm to him if he reported (it),” she said.
BREAKING THE VICIOUS CIRCLE
Talking Point’s research shows that the three commonest ways Singaporean teenagers are bullied online were: Posting an embarrassing video of them online; calling them a negative name; and posting embarrassing comments about them.
And things may yet get worse because of the vicious circle of bullying. A big part of cyberbullying involves teens being both a victim and bully in the social media domain. About 63 per cent fit this profile.
“Bullies, if they’ve experienced abuse before … compensate for the feelings of disempowerment that they (felt),” said Prof Lim. “They would then inflict harm on others in a way that allows them to feel that thrill their bullies had felt.”
With the survey showing that cyberbullying can start when children are in their pre-teen years, with victims as young as eight years old, Ms Ng believes it is time for parents to step up as the strongest line of defence.
“Teach children social responsibility and (phone) etiquette,” she urged. “We can’t take the phone away from them. That’s not going to work.”
Hear from cyberbullying victims, experts and parents, on the Talking Point special here. New episodes every Thursday on Mediacorp Channel 5.
Where to find help:
Coalition Against Bullying for Children and Youth (CABCY)
Tel: +65 6223 3122
TOUCH Cyber Wellness
Tel: 1800 377 2252
Community Health Assessment Team (CHAT)
Tel: +65 6493 6500, +65 6493 6501