Hooked on Internet and in trouble at school

SINGAPORE - Fifteen-year-old Amy was suspended from class for three of the first six weeks of school this year.

In January, she was suspended for a week for swearing at a teacher who tried to wake her up when she fell asleep in class. The same thing happened within a week of her returning later that month. This time, she was suspended for two weeks.

Now, she is back at school but is late at least twice a week. Some days, she skips classes altogether.

"It's hard for me to wake up," says the Secondary 3 student, who goes to bed at 4am or 5am on most days after spending the night on social media sites or watching movies online.

Being late, truancy and skipping classes are the most common reasons secondary school students are disciplined in school, according to the Ministry of Education.

Among primary school pupils, lateness is the most common problem.

Counsellors say the many ways to use the Internet, for everything from gaming to social media and watching movies, have created a whole host of temptations for children - and a new generation getting too little sleep.

Six out of eight voluntary welfare organisations contacted have seen this worrying trend of Internet-induced sleeplessness landing children in trouble in school.

"We're definitely seeing more children who are hooked on the computer and who spend less and less time sleeping," says director of youth services Carol Balhetchet of the Singapore Children's Society.

If left unchecked, their grades begin slipping and, in time, they do not want to go to school.

At Touch Cyber Wellness, set up in 2001 to promote safe and responsible Internet habits among children, around 100 young people struggling with excessive gaming were counselled last year, a 12.6 per cent increase over the year before. Almost all were sleep-deprived.

Sleep specialists such as Professor Daniel Goh, in fact, are sounding the warning bell about a possible epidemic of inadequate sleep among schoolchildren.

"Overuse of computers and too little sleep is an increasing and widely prevalent problem among teenagers in particular," says Prof Goh, head of the paediatrics department at the National University Hospital.

Too many parents regard this as a social or behavioural rather than a health issue, he adds. "This needs to change - and soon."

The Internet can indeed be a double-edged sword, says Ms Adelyn Poh, co-founder of the Children-at-Risk Empowerment Association (Care) Singapore. "With the Internet, social media and camera phones, it's a lot easier and faster to get into trouble these days than a decade ago," she says. Care saw more than 1,000 cases last year, up from around 300 in 1997.

What is unclear, however, is whether more children are facing discipline problems overall - by arriving late, missing classes, fighting or disrupting class or being hauled up for more serious offences such as stealing, smoking or drinking.

The Education Ministry did not reveal the numbers but said the discipline situation has been "stable" for the past few years. Schools commonly use counselling, formal warnings and parental involvement to correct misbehaviour and help instil better self-management and discipline skills, it said.

Figures from the Central Youth Guidance Office - set up in late 2010 - show that over the past two years, around 7,200 students were part of a national programme to help those facing discipline problems in school.

The scheme, called the Enhanced Step-Up (ESU) programme, was initiated by the Ministry of Social and Family Development and helps counsel children at risk of dropping out or with recurring attendance and truancy issues.

Over the past two years, the programme has also tried to help 800 dropouts to return to studies, get vocational training or find work.

About two out of three children on the programme are deemed successes - they either stay in school, return to school or get training, or find work, says the ministry.

The opportunities for risky behaviour, meanwhile, have grown.

"In the past, you had to go out to buy a cigarette or alcohol, which took effort; these days, you can get into trouble with a click of a mouse," says Ms Nadia Bamasri, head of counselling and casework at the Malay Youth Literary Association (4PM), one of nearly 40 agencies running the ESU programme.

In 2009, her agency saw two to three students a year brought in for counselling for missing school after staying online overnight. Now the figure is more than 40, and the youngest child involved last year was only eight years old.

A typical case: A 13-year-old who feigned stomach aches and refused to go to school. Once his parents went to work, he would go online. An only child with his own room, he also stayed up late online.

The agency counselled him and hooked him up with a mentor who weaned him off computer addiction by getting him to enjoy cycling. "These days, he thinks computers are boring," says Ms Nadia. Now 15 and attending school regularly, the boy volunteers to help other teens.

Children are also getting into trouble at a much younger age, say counsellors.

At Youth Guidance Outreach Services, more than 60 per cent of the 110 children on the ESU programme are in primary school. Deputy executive director Wilson Tan and his colleagues have seen more children playing computer games or browsing the Internet till late at night.

"Some of the teenagers end up missing school," he says. "The younger ones - aged between 10 and 12 - do attend class but cannot focus on studies, thus affecting their grades."

The backgrounds of students with disciplinary problems these days are as varied as their offences, note counsellors.

"In the early days, we used to see a disproportionate number of children from poorer or broken homes," says Dr Balhetchet, who has been counselling troubled teens for more than two decades. "These days, they are just as likely to come from affluent, stable homes."

Parents are not always to blame

Sam, 17, used to attend a well-known boys' school. While still in primary school, he began frequenting computer gaming shops, then fell into bad company and was smoking and drinking by 14.

After constant friction with his parents over his poor grades, the Express stream student left their home in the city and moved in with his grandparents. He began staying overnight at gaming shops and dropped out of school to play computer games in competitions.

Two years on, after counselling at the Singapore Children's Society, he plans to resume his studies by taking his N levels as a private student. Speaking to The Sunday Times, he blamed his "controlling parents" for precipitating the chain of events that led him to drop out.

But social workers such as Ms Zhuang Xinyan from the Students Care Centre say parents are not always to blame.

"Many parents today are bogged down with multiple stresses and long working hours that make it hard for them to invest time and energy in their children's issues," says Ms Zhuang.

Experts such as Dr Balhetchet and Ms Nadia believe schools should also relook how they deal with children with discipline issues. Punishments such as suspending children from school may not work any more.

"I don't see much point in punishing a child who has difficulty getting to school on time by suspending her - and ensuring that she spends even more time away from school," says Dr Balhetchet.

Schools try new ways

Schools try new ways

A truant no more

Serial truant Grace was home asleep at 9am when the phone rang. The call was from her school. If she was not going to them, they were coming to her. They were on her doorstep.

She recalled: "I was shocked when they called and said they were outside the door."

Her form teacher, discipline master and school counsellor had all come to see her.

The Secondary 1 student at Zhenghua Secondary in Bukit Panjang was skipping school because classmates were teasing her and she found it hard to make friends.

Rather than punish students, Zhenghua prefers to help them grasp the consequences of their actions, said principal Fiona Tan.

The school knew Grace was from a broken home. Her mother, raising three children on her own, worked long hours.

Through home visits over six months, teachers coaxed Grace back to school. They spoke to her classmates and counselled her.

"They focused on how hard my mum worked and how I could not let her down," Grace told The Sunday Times, brushing away tears. "Slowly, I realised I really could not disappoint her."

Now 16, she is vice-chairman of her Sec 4 class. Her duties include ensuring other students turn up for school on time.

The turnaround trip

Some might wonder why a school would give a 12-year-old with discipline problems a trip overseas - a leadership development tour usually reserved for prefects.

But in the case of troubled pupil Razali, it helped change his ways. The trip was to a Batam orphanage, and the experience of interacting with underprivileged kids proved to be a wake-up call.

A pupil at Rivervale Primary in Sengkang, Razali was sent on the three-day school trip in March last year after having been caught for a serious offence.

In Batam, he played with tsunami orphans, taught them to write, painted murals and learnt how children there survived with far less than most children here have.

Seeing them eat rice with egg and soya sauce - "and not even ask for second helpings" - made him realise how lucky children are in Singapore.

Said the youngest of four siblings: "I get to eat burgers whenever I want."

The trips are the brainchild of the school's head for pupil development, Mrs Evelyn Lee, who said: "Children with behavioural problems are usually stigmatised and excluded from leadership development initiatives. We did things differently - and it seems to have paid off."

radhab@sph.com.sg

The names of the children have been changed at their request.


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