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  • Writer's pictureSingapore Children's Forum

Don't prey where we play – How can children navigate the online world safely?

As digital natives in today's world, the use of digital media is deeply embedded in youths' lives. We can even say that digital is now the default.

The online world allows us to access useful information, create content, communicate with our friends and family, and much more. But it is also where we can potentially be exposed to harm. Increased online activity can be linked to mental health issues and cyber-bullying. In the bigger picture, we must also consider the digital footprints we leave behind.

We were delighted to have guest speakers Mr. David Ng, a child rights advocate on online safety and digital citizenship, and the founders of Flag You're It, Singapore's first movement against online child grooming, join us virtually for the third content session of the SCF on 4 September 2021.

Online Safety and Digital Citizenship – Mr. David Ng

David started his presentation by emphasising the importance of having platforms to promote internet safety among children and youth and to reduce their vulnerability towards commercial risks such as:

  • spam or phishing,

  • aggressive behaviour in the form of bullying or harassment,

  • exposure to sexual content, whether it is indecent materials or sexual grooming,

  • and attacks on their personal values such as racist remarks or biased information.

More importantly, education on how to navigate cyberspace is crucial, not only in protecting children and youth from being exposed to risks, but also in preventing them from being participants in said risky activities. Moreover, promoting internet safety can empower a child to become an 'actor' in the virtual world, whereby he/she actively helps those who may be facing online risks. David also acknowledged the opportunities to learn digital literacy within cyberspace and that exposure to cyberspace will allow children and youths to engage in better digital literacy. In particular, he pointed to the efforts of EU Kids Online, a multinational research network headed by the London School of Economics that seeks to enhance knowledge of children's opportunities, risks, and safety measures online.

Interestingly, EU Kids Online works with parents of children and youth as well, as they recognise that parents seem to fear that they may lose control over their children's activity on the internet, especially since their children are growing up as digital natives. To this, David highlighted that, in fact, the digital world has become a bridge for parents and their children; where they cay allow each other into their lives while keeping their distance. For example, a parent and child can be friends on Facebook, where the parent can still monitor the child's activity and emotions online and, if need be, the parent can talk to their child offline if they deem the child to be at risk.

Don't Prey Where We Play – Flag You're It

Flag, You're It (FYI) echoed David on the need to empower youths to take charge of their own digital safety, especially because today's youths are more present in cyberspace than ever before. Their focus is to help youths recognise the risks and signs o online grooming, where and how to reach out for help, as well as to educate youths on how they can help their peers who have been groomed.

FYI shared that adolescents aged 13 to 17 face the highest risk of being preyed upon online. In 2019, Microsoft Digital Civil Study revealed 68% of youths online received unwanted sexual content, while 1 in 2 have been approached by strangers online. In 2015, AsiaOne also reported 1 in 3 of those who have been approached by strangers actually met the online stranger, offline. The organisation also highlighted that a groomer is not necessarily your typical '50-year-old pervert' and can take on any age, gender, race, or nationality.

FYI summarised the three stages of grooming as follows:

Stage 1: Let's Be Friends

  • Seemingly harmless first move (eg. a friend request, or a compliment via DM)

  • Typically non-sexual in nature

Stage 2: It's Just You And Me

  • Building an emotional connection by creating the illusion of a best friend

  • Groomer will show willingness to learn about your interests, shower you with attention, and share secrets

Stage 3: Shall We...?

  • Groomers will shape your sexual boundaries by introducing explicit content (eg. they may ask if you have ever touched yourself)

Should you find yourself in a vulnerable position with a groomer, below are some key steps that you can take to get out of it.

Now what if your friend is potentially being groomed? FYI shares signs we can look out for in our friends. These are red flags indicating risk of being preyed upon.

  1. Your friend becomes increasingly secretive about who they are texting and what they are doing online. They may also spend more time online than offline.

  2. Although it is not always the case, having an older partner can be a cause for concern.

  3. Your friend is easily distressed, upset, or suddenly withdrawn. Victims of groomers may not understand that they are being groomed and often experience a mix of love, confusion, and fear.

  4. They can become sexually matured and exhibit sexual behaviours, language, or even an understanding of sex beyond their age.

Lastly, FYI shared some ways for peers to assist a victim out of a grooming situation and show support.

  1. Let them know they did the right thing by opening up.

  2. Discuss about reporting it to a trust adult as soon as possible.

  3. Tell them 'It's not your fault'

To find out more on how grooming can happen in Singapore, visit FYI's Instagram (@flagyoureit).

This content session helped highlight that despite today's youth growing up with technology and being digital natives, it is still possible to fall victims to harms online. It also shows that more work is needed in not only protecting youths online but educating them about the dangers as well.

Image adapted from FYI resources.

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