Monday 2 December 2013

Tackle cyber-bullying before it gets worse here

By Theresa Tan, The Sunday Times, 1 Dec 2013

With the growing concerns over harassment online and offline, Singapore is drafting new laws to curb this problem, Law Minister K. Shanmugam announced last month.

He cited a 2012 Microsoft survey that showed that Singapore had the second-highest rate of online bullying among children aged eight to 17.

China topped the list of 25 countries polled.

But besides the force of the law, more can be done to empower the youth to speak up against cyber-bullying, which includes spreading rumours and posting nasty or threatening messages and embarrassing pictures of the victim online.

One way is to raise awareness of its consequences and to encourage teens themselves to stand up for the victims, overseas research has pointed out.

Young people are "not generally deterred by overly punitive policies or the threat of arrest", according to a paper on social influences on cyber-bullying behaviours among teens published this year.

Rather, informal social controls, such as peer influence, are found to be more influential in curbing deviant behaviour among the youth, said the directors of the Cyber-bullying Research Centre in America, Dr Sameer Hinduja and Dr Justin W. Patchin.

Both men have researched cyber-bullying extensively. In 2010, they surveyed about 4,500 American students and found that:
- Those who said their friends were cyber-bullies were much more likely to bully others online too.
- Students who felt their parents and schools were not dismissive of cyber-bullying and would punish them for such behaviour were less likely to do so.
Therefore, the researchers said parents and schools have to make it clear to their children and students that bullying will not be tolerated and bullies will be taken to task.

While many bullies hide behind the anonymity provided by cyberspace, their identities can be traced if educators and other professionals who work with the youth are given the resources to do so.

Dr Hinduja and Dr Patchin also suggested training a "critical mass" of the youth to act as models of good behaviour and spread the anti-bullying message in their schools.

Over time, the student body would learn that bullying is not acceptable and they would feel more empowered to stand up to the bullies. Bullies then have to think twice before striking.

There is also a growing body of research in the West which shows the troubling effects of cyber-bullying.

Victims are reported to show increased truancy from school and have poorer academic results, among other problems.

A new term, cyberbullicide, has also emerged after stories of tormented teenagers overseas who killed themselves after being bullied online.

In a study on the consequences of bullying on Singaporean youth and published in the International Criminal Justice Review in February, the authors pointed out the "significant link between bullying victimisation and school truancy and suicidal thoughts".

One of the paper's authors, Ms Esther Ng, is the founder of local non-profit group Coalition Against Bullying for Children and Youth (CABCY).

Of the more than 3,000 students polled by CABCY in 2006, 27 per cent of those who were bullied online contemplated skipping school and 28 per cent thought of suicide, compared with 15 per cent and 16 per cent respectively who were not bullied.

The media has tended to focus on the victims, but research has shown that the bullies as well as those who are both bullies and victims also suffer.

For example, another Hinduja and Patchin study, which polled about 2,000 young American people in 2007, found that teens who have been bullied - both in everyday life and online - and the bullies themselves are almost twice as likely to have attempted suicide than those who have not been.

So efforts to tackle the problem should also help bullies deal with their aggression and other problems.

In Singapore, there have been some initiatives by the Education Ministry and charities such as Touch Cyber Wellness and the Singapore Children's Society.

For example, 1,400 student ambassadors have been trained to educate their peers on how to use the Internet safely and responsibly since a ministry programme started in 2009.

Touch Cyber Wellness is also educating the youth - through school talks and training students to champion the cause - about the consequences of cyber-bullying and how to respond to it.

Its assistant manager, Mr Chong Ee Jay, says more than 7,000 students have attended its sessions and almost all had been bullied online, were bullies themselves or had witnessed such acts.

The challenge is to identify which initiatives work and to pour more resources into them.

Singapore cannot wait for the tragedy of cyberbullicide to hit home before putting our heads together together to tackle this problem already in our midst.

Draw a clear line on behaviour online
By Carol Soon, Published The Straits Times, 30 Nov 2013

TECHNOLOGY as a double-edged sword is now common wisdom. Social media, instant messaging and file- sharing sites have been used for public good. On the other hand, they have also resulted in some undesirable behaviours with devastating consequences.

Recent incidents include a student from a local university who became the target of vile attacks on Facebook after she criticised the university's financial aid system, and the online posting of a grassroots volunteer's personal particulars, including his phone number and his child's information.

Singapore's first case of online harassment with fatal consequences was recorded in 2010. Then, a student from Myanmar committed suicide after her former boyfriend wrote cruel insults on her Facebook page.

Online harassment runs a wide gamut, from impersonating someone, spreading rumours and lies about the victim, and posting pictures of victims without their consent, to unrelenting verbal abuse and threats.

When encountering vitriolic speech in forums or on websites, one can exercise the power to ignore, report or leave. But when one has pictures and personal information, sometimes embellished with untruths, disseminated online, one becomes powerless. A victim's humiliation and desperation multiplies online and with no boundaries.

A recent conference organised by the Institute of Policy Studies (IPS) deliberated on harassment in various contexts. A common theme that ran across all three panels was the stark lacuna in Singapore's legislative framework.

Victims of harassment suffer from insufficient protection and face an unclear path when seeking recourse, especially when harassment occurs or spills over to daily life. Minister for Foreign Affairs and Law K. Shanmugam has indicated that new laws on harassment will be tabled next year.

The announcement has been met with support, ire and scepticism. There are discernible misgivings concerning the Government's true intent and contention on who should be responsible for curbing online harassment. Some perceive that the implementation of yet another regulation smacks of a nanny state over-extending its grasp on individual freedom.

Clearly, the lines of intent, responsibility and ownership are blurred, which is why several issues need to be addressed.

Any regulation pertaining to online speech inadvertently triggers doubts on the Government's motive, sparking fears of censorship and a clampdown on online discourse. In other countries, governments have responded to online harassment by implementing new legislation or amending existing ones. Regardless of the approach, they target communications that are threatening, grossly offensive, indecent, obscene or knowingly false. One example is New Zealand, where recently proposed legislation makes incitement to commit suicide an offence.

In July last year, New York became the 15th state in the US to pass a cyber-bullying law in response to rising incidents of online harassment of children and youth on Facebook, Snapchat and chatrooms. The amendment specifically targets electronic communications that repeatedly comment on a child's sexual orientation, gender identity and expression, and statements that cause serious embarrassment to a child.

As such, any new laws targeting online harassment will have to be lucid in defining what constitutes objectionable material, leaving no doubt that they are victim- and harm-focused.

One of the key takeaways of a panel at the IPS conference is that the law plays a dual role.

Apart from providing legal recourse for victims, it also assumes a symbolic role by setting standards for acceptable and unacceptable behaviour, and reinforcing positive social norms in the long run.

At the conference, Professor Tan Cheng Han, chairman of the Media Literacy Council, mooted the idea of establishing an independent tribunal to look into cases of online harassment. Victims can seek help from the tribunal if websites do not take down the comments or postings in question. Besides providing a more informal and speedy way to redress victims, a tribunal involving known individuals in the public domain also helps shift the locus of responsibility away from the state to the community.

Finally, as users of technology, we too have to assume greater ownership for our actions online. We need to be more cognisant of the dangers that lurk beneath the Web and be responsible for what we share about our lives, ourselves and our children.

Many are unaware that evolving privacy policies and default settings on social media platforms like Facebook are making our profiles increasingly less private.

Even more are unaware of the fact that the pictures we take with our mobile devices and share online have longitude and latitude information embedded in them that allows for location tracking.

No one deserves to be a victim of harassment. As users of social media, we have a personal responsibility to be aware of the consequences of sharing information and to equip ourselves with up-to-date knowledge to make informed decisions so we are less susceptible to abuse.

The law has a role; as does the community, and individual users.

It is now time for each to draw the line.

The writer is a research fellow at the Institute of Policy Studies. A longer version of this article can be found at the IPSCommons blog.


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