SINGAPORE - A 15-year-old truant turned her life around with weekly counselling and her own will to change.
Early last year, after skipping school and staying away from home for days, teenager Hana (not her real name) was deemed beyond parental control. On a court order, she spent a month at the Girls' Home, a rehabilitation facility for troubled teens.
By early this year, the third of four children of a housewife and a technician was attending school every day. Her grades improved too.
The only problem: Her past continued to haunt her as classmates called her names and continued to bully her online and in school.
A cousin in the same school leaked the fact of Hana's stay at the Girls' Home, and that soon spread on Twitter and Facebook. "They would call me shameful names and post things like: 'Don't be friends with that hooligan'," she told The Sunday Times.
Months of intensive counselling helped her stand up to the bullies, and the online rants subsided. "I just ignore them," said Hana.
Her counsellor, Dr Carol Balhetchet from the Singapore Children's Society, said it was online bullying that led to some of her truant behaviour in the first place.
"She was bullied online for three years before her stint in the Girls' Home," she said. "Playing truant was her way of running away from it all."
Volunteer groups that deal with children say incidents of cyber bullying and harassment may be on the rise among young people. Touch Cyber Wellness, which conducts talks at schools, did an informal straw poll earlier this year at a primary school and a secondary school.
Around 15 per cent of 200 Primary 5 pupils polled said they had faced cyber bullying and close to three in four said they had seen others do it.
Around 30 per cent of the 300 Secondary 1 students said they had experienced cyber bullying and nearly all said they had witnessed it.
Touch Cyber Wellness' assistant manager Chong Ee Jay said the numbers have been rising for the past four years.
"Students are more tech-savvy and have greater exposure and access to technology," he said.
"However, being teenagers, they may not be mentally or emotionally mature enough to manage and handle their conduct online."
He recalled a 13-year-old girl who broke down in tears while watching a video during a cyber wellness talk earlier this year. She had been bullied and harassed online in Primary 6 by a group of schoolmates who posted insensitive, crude and hurtful comments on her blog and social media profile.
She never reported it, fearing that the bullies would attack her even more. She even chose a secondary school far from home, just to avoid meeting her tormentors.
"She was referred to the school counsellor, and the last we heard, she was coping well in her new school," said Mr Chong.
Both Mr Chong and Dr Balhetchet said stronger laws that protect children could be an effective deterrent.
"There have been cases overseas of children committing suicide after being bullied online. We don't want that to happen here as well," said Dr Balhatchet.
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