Bid to highlight increasing cyber risks for children

The Sunday Times © SPH Media Limited. Permission required for reproduction.

Grace Chng
Senior Correspondent

It started when Mary was 10 years old. A classmate accused her of stealing her boyfriend, called her names and refused to be her friend any more.

It did not end there. Mary was accused of copying during exams. She was called names, and the hurtful comments just piled up.

Then the bullying spilled over to the Internet. Even youngsters who did not know either girl joined in to bully Mary, and this went on for years.

She was 15, depressed and uninterested in school when her parents sought help from the Singapore Children’s Society.

Dr Carol Balhetchet, senior director of the Society and a clinical psychologist, said: “The cyber bullying had gone on for five years before the parents discovered it. When asked why she didn’t tell anyone, Mary said she thought she could handle the situation.”

Young children and teenagers often cannot handle such bullying on their own. “Parents must be watchful to pick up these cases. As adults, they can help by making a report to the school and even a police report,” she said.

With more than eight out of 10 households connected to the Internet, activities such as Web-surfing, chatting online and posting on social media networks are becoming popular with young people.

The risk of cyber bullying or exposure to other risks like child pornography and being preyed upon have increased.

Dr Balhetchet said she is seeing more Internet-related cases among the children referred to her, and her agency is doing a study on it.

To promote a safer online experience for children, the Media Literacy Council is organising a Safer Internet Day on Tuesday, and has produced a guidebook and YouTube videos to help parents guide their children’s digital journey.

The council, made up of academics, bloggers, think-tankers, social workers, teachers and parents, advises the Media Development Authority on cyber wellness and other Internet issues.

Safer Internet Day is a global campaign to promote safer, more responsible use of the Web and mobile phones among young people.

Dr Balhetchet, a council member, said parents can help prevent cyber bullying and other online incidents. “They have to be more involved in guiding and advising their children on Internet usage.”

Parents ought to know when their children go online, and be aware that there are online thieves waiting to swipe personal details and photographs.

“Stolen photos can be digitally altered to either place the child in a compromising pose or look half dressed. The perpetrator could distribute the images or use them for blackmail,” she warned.

Homemaker Lorinne Kon, 48, who has three children aged seven, nine and 11, allowed them to use the Internet from the time they were four years old. But the children need her permission to go online.

“The computer is in a common area of our home, so I can see what they’re doing. Generally, I don’t allow them to surf without me,” she said.

“My daughters like the singer Katy Perry so they go online to look for information on her. But I discuss the singer with them, to understand what they are thinking,” said Ms Kon, who is married to Mr Ong Siow Aik, 60.

Father of two Teo Yueh Hua, 43, who works in a research institution and is married to polytechnic lecturer Jeanne Lim, also 43, takes a common-sense approach.

He has told his 15-year-old son and nine-year-old daughter that just as they do not talk to strangers or reveal personal details to them, they should do the same online.

“We have an open-door policy at home, so there’s no such thing as surfing the Web or playing games behind closed doors. Sometimes we just walk in and check on what they are doing,” he added.

Here are 10 tips from Clique Click, the handbook to help parents guide children in using the Internet and tech devices.

1. Impose ‘tech-free time’

Tell the children to put their gadgets aside during mealtimes, for example, to show that they are not overly dependent on them.

Parents should do the same too. 

2. Too good to be true

Freebies, gifts and prizes offered online are a red flag, and usually there’s a catch. Children need to know this is how predators hook the unsuspecting into revealing personal information. 

3. Tell an adult

Remind children to tell you or a trusted adult if they encounter something nasty or anything that makes them uncomfortable while online. 

4. Install Web filters

They screen out inappropriate sites. Safe settings on websites like YouTube, Google and Yahoo can minimise exposure to sexually explicit and violent material. 

5. Don’t embarrass your child

When you share posts about your children, do not upload anything that may embarrass them in the future. 

6. Report the bully

Tell your child he’s not alone and he should tell you or a teacher if he’s abused or bullied online. 

7. Be a friend

Become part of your child’s social media network. Tell him if he has nothing to hide, he should not mind. 

8. Aim for a balance

For every hour online, your child should have, say, two hours of outdoor play or physical activity. 

9. Cooperative play

Select games that involve two or more players to encourage cooperative play. 

10. Have limits

Set clear rules and time limits on gaming and Internet time to prevent addiction. 

The 52-page Clique Click will be distributed on Tuesday to all primary schools. It can also be downloaded from on Tuesday.