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Understanding Online Safety Concerns Among Singapore’s Youth

A recent study by SG Her Empowerment (SHE) reveals significant online safety concerns among Singapore’s youth, shedding light on urgent issues in the digital world.

The Safeguarding Online Spaces (SOS) Study, conducted with over 500 young participants, highlights a worrying trend of exposure to harmful content. A striking 63% of youth reported encountering sensitive content, including body image-related issues, without actively seeking it. This has led to emotional distress, with half of these individuals feeling upset for extended periods.

Gender-Specific Challenges and Perspectives in Asia

The SHE study’s findings align with broader global trends, revealing distinct gender-specific online challenges. For female youths in Asia, social media has a profound impact on body image and mental health. Exposure to idealised images often leads to self-objectification and body dissatisfaction, similar to findings in Western studies. This is particularly concerning in societies with strong beauty standards, where social media can amplify pressures on young women.

For male youths, exposure to certain types of content, such as adult material, can shape perceptions and attitudes towards women. This has implications for how they view and interact with women in both digital and real-life contexts. 

A recent study also revealed that young males and females experience and manage these social media harms differently. Females typically face stress, social isolation, and issues related to body image and eating. Males may develop unhealthy attitudes towards women.

These insights highlight the urgent need for targeted educational and support initiatives in Asia. These should focus not only on promoting healthy body image among females but also on fostering respect and equality among males, to mitigate the negative impacts of specific types of online content.

Online Safety: A Top Concern

The SOS Study’s identification of online safety as a paramount concern among Singapore’s youth is echoed by a range of studies, shedding light on the prevalence and impact of cyberbullying, IBSA, and doxxing in Singapore. 

Cyberbullying, in particular, has shown to be a significant issue. According to research by the Cyberbullying Research Center, 7.3% of adolescents in Singapore reported being victims of cyberbullying, 1.8% admitted to being cyberbullies, and 4.8% were involved as both bullies and victims​​. These figures highlight the critical nature of cyberbullying among young people in Singapore.

A study by Channel News Asia further details the severity of this issue, revealing that nearly half of the Singaporean respondents aged above 15 had experienced some form of online harm, such as being stalked online and cyberbullied. This study underlines the persistent and damaging presence of cyberbullying in victims’ lives, often archived on the internet and accessible 24/7​​.

Comprehensive cyberwellness programs in schools and the community should aim to raise awareness and early detection of such issues, emphasising the need for addressing the impacts of online harms beyond temporary distress, as they are associated with long-term psychological issues, including internalising problems like depression and anxiety. Adolescents involved in cyberbullying experience a significantly higher prevalence of psychosocial difficulties compared to those not involved.

The Impact of Generative AI

The misuse of generative AI technologies in social media, particularly in image creation and alteration, has emerged as a significant concern. The SHE study’s findings align with broader apprehensions about AI’s potential to exacerbate issues surrounding body image and personal identity. 

Misrepresentation and sexualisation, especially of women, are prevalent concerns. This misuse can lead to distorted body image norms and undermine personal dignity. The fear is not just about the prevalence of such AI-altered images, but also about their acceptance as the norm, thereby influencing societal perceptions of beauty and identity. The need for clear rules and regulations governing the use of generative AI in media is becoming increasingly evident to prevent such negative impacts.

The Need for Greater Awareness and Support

The SHE study revealed a significant gap in awareness among Singapore’s youth regarding online safety tools and legal recourse options. This lack of awareness is especially pronounced among females and millennials. Such gaps highlight the necessity for comprehensive education and support systems. 

Addressing this issue involves not just making these tools and resources available, but also ensuring that youths are adequately informed and comfortable in using them. Emphasising digital literacy and the promotion of healthy online habits must be a priority in educational institutions and community programs. Additionally, enhancing the visibility and accessibility of legal and non-legal support mechanisms can empower youths to seek help and take appropriate actions when encountering online harms.

Addressing Unhealthy Gender-Biased Mindsets

The SHE study brings to light the concerning normalisation of unhealthy, gender-biased attitudes among younger males in Singapore. This trend, if unchecked, could lead to more pervasive issues, including online harms against females. It suggests a deep-seated cultural challenge that goes beyond mere online behaviour. Addressing this requires a multifaceted approach that includes education, community engagement, and policy interventions. 

Educational curriculums need to emphasise respect and equality, while community programs should aim to challenge and change these entrenched attitudes. Furthermore, policy measures might be necessary to ensure a safe and respectful online environment for all. Particularly for females, who are disproportionately affected by certain types of online harms.

The Path Forward

To effectively address the online safety challenges highlighted by the SHE study, a collaborative approach is essential. It’s about creating a balanced digital environment where safety and opportunity coexist. 

This involves initiating dialogues and developing solutions that cater to the specific needs and concerns of Singapore’s youth. SHE’s commitment to working with partners in educating and empowering the public about online safety is a step in the right direction. The involvement of youths in these efforts is particularly crucial. They are not just the subjects of concern, but also key agents of change. 

The study emphasises the importance of equipping young internet users with the right tools, education, and resources to safely navigate online spaces and seek support in the face of harmful online conduct.

References

  1. STUDY: SAFEGUARDING ONLINE SPACES. (n.d.). Retrieved February 12, 2024, from https://she.org.sg/news/study-safeguarding-online-spaces
  2. Samari, E., Chang, S., Seow, E., Chua, Y. C., Subramaniam, M., Van Dam, R. M., Luo, N., Verma, S., & Vaingankar, J. A. (2022, November 22). A qualitative study on negative experiences of social media use and harm reduction strategies among youths in a multi-ethnic Asian society. PLOS ONE. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0277928
  3. Cyberbullying Research in Singapore – Cyberbullying Research Center. (2023, December 28). Cyberbullying Research Center. https://cyberbullying.org/research/map/singapore
  4. Lee, L. (2023, January 31). The Big Read: Cyberbullying is more rampant and damaging to young lives than we think. It’s time to take it seriously. CNA. https://www.channelnewsasia.com/singapore/cyberbullying-damaging-young-lives-rampant-big-read-3238221

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