Tackle cyber-bullying before it gets worse here

Tackle cyber-bullying before it gets worse here

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.

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