Sporadic bursts of outrageous conduct among cyber bullies have hardened opinion on how much leeway should be given to free-flowing online interaction. An overwhelming proportion of Singapore residents (eight in 10) now want tougher rules to curb online and other forms of harassment, according to government feedback unit Reach. And the authorities have signalled that harassment laws are to be updated - a move that has already taken place elsewhere, like the United States and Britain where deaths have been linked to egregious acts of bullying. Though cases here are substantially different, the persistence of the phenomenon cannot be ignored - 58 per cent of youngsters aged eight to 17 have been victimised online, according to a global study.
It is an issue worth pondering. Why are Singapore youngsters particularly vulnerable or predatory? The universal incidence of bullying suggests the social capacity to handle advanced technologies cannot be taken for granted. The degree of cruelty appears to be raised when the bully cannot see the effects of acts and is egged on by others, all hissing under the cover of anonymity. The sociopathy of those who crave instant perverse gratification is not easily parsed but some observers think less-developed impulse control and social skills among the young might play a part. When these are combined with unprecedented broadcasting power, a potent mix is created. What remains puzzling is the prevalence of online meanness here.
Singapore and China were the only nations, out of the 25 surveyed in the Microsoft study, where cyber bullying incidents exceeded those in the real world.
One might think that enacting tough laws will help to rein in those who now believe they won't get caught. But if framed too broadly and rigidly, these might muzzle "name and shame" initiatives by citizens to pinpoint civic misbehaviour, consumer fraud or supervisory misconduct. Such reinforcement of societal norms has a deterrent effect but cyber vigilantes need to be made aware that there are lines that cannot be crossed, for example, waging witch-hunts that provoke unlawful acts and cause extreme distress.
Laws have practical and principled limits and are not always the best way of modifying social behaviour. For example, judicial discretion can help separate small annoying cases from unconscionable attempts to cause harm. But the courts cannot help teens to avoid becoming victims. A wider array of options, therefore, has to be explored too. These might include efficient filtering of abusive posts, diverse means of reporting online abuse and more cyber wellness programmes in the community. Standing firm together is often the best check against bullying.
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