14-year-old me didn’t know any better.
As I waited nervously at the mall to meet my “boyfriend” of the time, I was wholly unaware and ignorant of the potential dangers my actions could have resulted in. Thankfully, my naïve self didn’t fall prey to what could have easily been a precarious situation. The boy I was meeting, while slightly pushy, did not enter the realm of impropriety.
But it very well could have.
This boy I was meeting was only one of the many online correspondents I had since I started speaking to strangers online when I was merely 12 years old. Unaware of the potential dangers it could pose, I found solace in the online communities that shared similar interests as me.
Eventually, some of these conversations moved off from the websites and onto more personal modes of contact like MSN and Skype; video calls followed, and in that one particular instance, a physical meet-up.
Luckily for me, these conversations didn’t go beyond innocent chatter, except for one particular instance:
It was a guy I had been chatting with on one of the chatbots for a few days now. We eventually moved the conversation online, and that’s when he broached the topic of masturbation.
Unaware of what the word meant at the time, I readily engaged in the conversation where he started telling me what it was and “teaching” me how I could masturbate. While I felt slightly uncomfortable by this, I wasn’t fully aware of the implications of his words at the time. I thank the little semblance of wisdom my 13-year-old self had when I finally decided to block him after he asked for photos of me naked.
I was lucky enough to have escaped (fairly) unscathed from my online shenanigans (at least, in this context, but more about this later), but many others were not so lucky.
Online threats are aplenty, and more are discovered every day. Beyond just exposure to potential sexual predators, other dangers include falling victim to cyberbullying, video game or social media addiction, scams, cyber threats, and more.
In the Child Online Safety Index (Cosi) conducted by international think-tank DQ Institute in 2020, Singapore ranked a solid fourth place. However, the danger of online threats is not to be brushed aside.
Of the 11,963 children and adolescents interviewed in Singapore, nearly 20 per cent of children aged between eight and 12 had experienced “risky contact” on the internet, defined by DQ Institute as meeting online strangers in real life or getting unwanted online contact of a sexual nature. This number spikes to one in three among teenagers.
Additionally, 40 per cent of children were found to have been exposed to cyberbullying, either as the perpetrator or the victim. In teenagers, the number is more than half.
These aren’t the only online threats
Trigger warning: The following section includes mentions of self-harm, suicide, and eating disorders.
I earlier mentioned I was one of the lucky ones to escape relatively unscathed from my online escapades with complete strangers, but that wasn’t the full story.
As a tween just getting to know the internet and getting familiar with social networking sites, I found myself diving headfirst into a site that had profound impacts on me at the time.
The site in question? Tumblr – its dark side.
For the unfamiliar, Tumblr is a microblogging site that launched in 2007. It quickly gained popularity in the late-2000s and early-2010s. Unfortunately, Tumblr’s terms of service at the time was inadequate, to put it mildly; any and all content was allowed on the site, including a whole host of pornographic content, and other much more insidious and sinister rhetoric.
Being an angsty tween meant I was quickly drawn to the “emo” side of Tumblr. This started out innocent enough; I found solace in the idea that I was not alone in my thoughts and struggles. However, Tumblr is well-known to be a rabbit hole and I soon found myself reading about and being exposed to topics an impressionable child/young teen should never have been exposed to.
The typical images and posts about teenage angst quickly morphed into much more serious issues of suicide, self-harm, and eating disorders. Worse still, the lack of censorship and control on the platform at the time meant that all content was fair game – including those that glorifies all of the above.
There was a whole community of individuals who call themselves pro-ana (pro-anorexia) or pro-mia (pro-bulimia), romanticising eating disorders and encouraging one another to eat less or purge more. My Tumblr feed soon became rife with images of people who had cut, burned, or scratched themselves, accompanied by images of guns, nooses, and blood.
Today, Tumblr is a much safer place, with guidelines and measures in place to limit such content as far as possible. However, the messaging I was exposed to and consumed daily then still impacts my lives today as I struggle to undo the years of toxicity and negativity that I once thought was normal.
Online threats will always be there
Today, social networking sites are much better at their attempts to keep their sites safe and free from such content for all users. In fact, Facebook and Instagram have just recently its term of use to censor sex-related content (although their approach may not have been ideal, but that’s a story for another article).
However, the threats are still there, and they always will be. With the new generation of digital natives getting more and more proficient and navigating the web, it would not be surprising for any of them to find their ways into the darker side of the internet.
If anything, the recent Cosi survey conducted by the DQ Institute makes it clear that cyber wellness is still a concern today for a significant proportion of children and teenagers.
Promoting cyber wellness among the young
Singapore’s Ministry of Education (MOE) has a cyber wellness syllabus in place that covers students from primary school up until tertiary education. However, good cyber wellness habits should start from home.
For this, MOE gives parents three tips to kickstart your children’s online forays:
- Guide your child on time spent online and online etiquette
- Teach your child to stay safe online
- Guide your child to behave responsibly online
For more details, they have also come up with an infographic here.
If you require assistance in matters relating to cyber wellness, or if you suspect your child has been a victim of cyber threats, you can also reach out to organisations such as the National Council of Social Services or Touch Cyber Wellness, who have education and outreach programs, as well as counselling support if required.
The Internet doesn’t have to be a deep, dark, scary place
My early experiences with the web may not have been the most positive, but in hindsight, I realize now that much of it could have been avoided with better education.
With over 90 per cent of our young being actively connected to the internet these days, it is more vital than ever to instill good cyber wellness practices and behaviour into them from the get-go. This is also why I am personally a strong advocate for monitoring and regulating your child’s online activities, especially for younger children who might not yet understand the dangers on the interwebs.
My early internet adventures might have left me scarred, but I now know better than ever how easy it can be to fall prey to the many risks online. If you’re one of the lucky ones to have escaped the countless snares scattered across the web, I hope my story drives home the importance of instilling proper cyber wellness habits into your children, if or when you have them.