Ask.fm & you could receive abuse

SINGAPORE - More young people here are committing suicide or harbouring suicidal thoughts, according to a report released by the Samaritans of Singapore. Dependence on social media for validation is listed as a contributing factor.

Judith Tan finds out that young S'poreans are hopping onto new social networks where they are being cyberbullied and parents are none the wiser.

Among the lewd questions asked of a 20-year-old polytechnic student? Her bra cup size.

Others included references to male genitalia, and whether she has prostituted herself. Some are simply rude questions that threaten violence. One user asked her if her make-up will "snow flake" off her face when the questioner slaps her.

Annabel (we are not using her real name to protect her from more bullies) says these questions come fast and furious on an app that has become extremely popular among her peer group, those in junior colleges, secondary schools, and in some cases, primary schools.

Called Ask.fm, it allows users to log in anonymously and ask someone questions.

The answers, which can include photos and video, are posted to their profiles, as well as to a real-time feed of responses.

When one logs in, the questions range from the fairly innocent and clean to the steamy and downright hateful.

Annabel says she is made of sterner stuff and tries to respond to the lewd questions with humour.

But the tough demeanour she portrays cracks a tad when she admits it can be hurtful, especially since some of the questions are so personal they can only come from people, like her classmates, who know her in real life.

"I believe the anonymity gives them the courage to ask me questions they had always wanted (to ask), and say things that wouldn't say to me directly."

Experts say this is a clear cut case of cyberbullying.

Ask.fm has been linked to a handful of suicides overseas. The scary part? While there are signs that such anonymity sites like Ask.fm, Whisper and Secret are growing in popularity among tweens and teens in Singapore - a Google search, for instance, turned up pages and pages of young Singaporean members on Ask.fm - parents, teachers and counsellors seem to have no clue.

"I don't even know where to start looking for these sites, let alone what they are," admits the executive director at Singapore Children's Society (SCS) Alfred Tan.

According to some reports. Ask.fm has wracked up 57 million users and is adding members at a rate of 200,000 a day.

"Many of the polytechnic students here have been on Ask for some time," Annabel says.

Dr Carol Balhetchet, director of youth services at SCS, says that young people may not understand the risks of sharing such personal information and giving people power to bully them.

Psychiatrist Adrian Wang says it is this naivety that makes the young "much more trusting" and gives them a false sense of security.

"They remain untainted by cynicism and fear, and often believe that people, including strangers, are inherently good," Dr Wang says. "They also don't realise that the personal information they disclose to strangers can be used to harm them. Their response is usually 'Why would anyone want to do that?'"

Dr Balhetchet says: "These sites open the doors to the secret world of teen crushes and insecurities. By allowing members to mask themselves, they fuel the confidence of bullies and trolls. It is the perfect tool for predators to get into the minds and under the skin of potential victims."

Plus, young people may not have the ability to handle the hate and vitriol.

Some parents and lobby groups in Europe and the US have successfully closed a few predecessors of these apps.

Formspring, an anonymous Q&A site garnered some controversy, especially among teenagers, and was beset with cyberbullying and allegations of related suicides. Launched in November 2009, the company raised $14m before shutting down a year ago.

In January 2012, businessman and IT whizz Frank Warren voluntarily closed his PostSecret iPhone app after learning that it was being used to anonymously bully users.

"What is scary is that while the user may have grown up and moved on, the information in cyberspace still stays, perhaps allowing a new group of bullies to access it," Dr Balhetchet says.

"Parents need to know what their children are up to in cyberspace. I'm not saying they need to spy constantly but talk to the kids and stay on top of things. Know what your teens are up to."

She adds that parents themselves are often on their smartphones, tablets and computers.

"No longer can they use the excuse of not being IT savvy. Ten years ago, maybe, but not today," she says.

When this reporter asks Annabel why she is still on an app that allows people to pour scorn on her, she says: "I want to know what is being said about me so I sign on this app. This way I can learn who is saying what from the questions they ask."

Psychiatrist Adrian Wang, who has worked with victims, says that it is because young people are very integrated into their online communities and they always have their phones and electronic devices with them.

So even in the sanctuary of the home, bullying can continue and through different social networks.

“These trolls taunt them on Facebook, gang up on them on WhatsApp and message them directly any time, anywhere,” says Dr Wang. And now, there are anonymous chat apps such as Ask, Secret and Whisper.

Trolls or bullies want to create feelings of powerlessness and helplessness in their victims, Dr Wang says.

“And these can lead to depression and sadly, even thoughts of suicide.”

The number of young suicide cases has been creeping up.

The Samaritans of Singapore (SOS) found that about 24 per cent of those who committed suicide last year were below 30 years old. In 2012, this group made up 22 per cent and 16 per cent the year before that.

A survey by Touch Cyber Wellness found that one in four secondary school students has bullied his peers online within the past year, while one in three has been a victim. One in five primary school pupils reported being cyberbullied.

A total of 3,000 secondary school students and 1,900 primary pupils were polled.

According to a 2013 Microsoft survey, Singapore is ranked second highest globally for cyberbullying.

 

Next: Teen mutilates herself after being cyberbullied

Teen mutilates herself after being cyberbullied

For one 13-year-old, the cyberbullying got so bad that she started mutilating herself and harboured thoughts of suicide.

Winnie’s primary school friends began turning on her when she started secondary school and made strides to becoming a netball star. They started making snide remarks whenever she updated her Facebook page or posted photographs.

"They started making disparaging remarks on her Facebook page, commenting on her Twitter and even resorted to harassing her through the WhatsApp group they shared," her mother, Madam Lim, tells The New Paper on Sunday.

Both Winnie and her mother's names are changed to protect the teenager. She allowed her mother to tell the story, even if she refused to talk about her experiences.

Winnie still does not know what she did wrong and was almost driven to desperation to find out.

"When she first tried to ask them through Facebook, they called her stupid and retarded," Madam Lim, 42, says.

Badly affected by the name-calling, Winnie began missing meals, spending her time in front of the computer and was constantly glued to her smartphone. After the first term, her schoolwork suffered, as did her confidence.

“She is usually chatty and will tell her father and me about her day. But she started withdrawing into herself and often locked herself inside her bedroom and sobbed,” Madam Lim says.

It was during the June school holidays when Madam Lim received a call from Winnie’s tutor.

"She asked if I noticed something was wrong with Winnie. She said Winnie had lost a lot of weight since April and she had also seen red welts on Winnie’s upper arms," she recalls.

"I was shocked that I had not noticed. We live in the same house and I had to have a stranger telling me that my daughter was mutilating herself," Madam Lim laments.

That was when she decided to sit the girl, the youngest of three daughters, down to ask what was troubling her. Winnie cried.

“I did not know what to do. All I could do was hold her tightly and cried along until she was ready to open up.”

After an hour of crying and hugging, Winnie finally opened up. She said she had tried coping with it on her own but was failing miserably.

"She said she was not sleeping and felt like a failure. That was when she started to cut herself, first with her metal ruler, then with razor blades."

Winnie even told her mother that she entertained thoughts of ending her life but did not have the courage to carry them out.

"That was when her father and I decided to seek psychiatric help. We were advised to remove her from the toxic environment so we transferred her to another school," her mother adds.

Today at 16, Winnie is much happier. She is looking forward to starting junior college. She has made new friends at her current school and is helping her netball team win medals.

"She no longer has a Facebook account and has closed down her Twitter. She has stopped cutting and is eating well," her mother says. Winnie continues to see her psychiatrist and has finally learnt to love herself again.

juditht@sph.com.sg 

HELPLINES
Samaritans of Singapore (SOS):1800-2214444
Singapore Association for Mental Health:1800-2837019
Sage Counselling Centre:1800-5555555
Care Corner Mandarin Counselling:1800-3535800

This article was published on Aug 10 in The New Paper.


Get The New Paper for more stories.