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Global study warns of ‘cyber pandemic’ among children; biggest risk for S’porean kids is cyber bullying

SINGAPORE — A new study of 30 countries has warned of a “cyber pandemic” among children aged eight to 12 years, with four in 10 Singaporean children in this age bracket at risk of cyber bullying. The picture is even worse for teenagers.

The planned code of practice for app stores aims to protect children from harmful content such as sexual and violent material.

The planned code of practice for app stores aims to protect children from harmful content such as sexual and violent material.

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SINGAPORE — A new study of 30 countries has warned of a “cyber pandemic” among children aged eight to 12 years, with four in 10 Singaporean children in this age bracket at risk of cyber bullying. The picture is even worse for teenagers.

The main culprits? Smartphone ownership, and high use of social media and high gaming activity.

The inaugural 2020 Child Online Safety Index (Cosi) report, which includes data on more than 145,000 children, found that 60 per cent of eight- to 12-year-olds across 30 countries are exposed to cyber risks.

It found that children who do not own a smartphone have a 52 per cent chance of being exposed to one significant cyber risk such as cyber bullying, exposure to violent or sexual content and reputational threats, among other risks.

However, owning a smartphone increases the chance of being exposed to such risks to about 70 per cent given a high level of phone usage. And children who have a highly active social media and gaming presence face an even more dramatically higher risk of 89 per cent.

Released on Tuesday (Feb 11), in conjunction with Safer Internet Day, the index also scored and ranked 30 countries according to a nation’s ability to keep their children safe online.

Singapore, which received an above average score of 65.8, was placed fourth — a rank lower than Malaysia’s 68.1. Highest-rating Spain scored 75.6 while Thailand received the lowest score of 10.5. The higher the score, the better the level of child protection.

The Cosi report is the culmination of three years of efforts by #DQEveryChild, a global movement by international think-tank DQ Institute and Singapore telco company Singtel.

The report said that "DQ" represents a comprehensive set of digital competencies which includes, among others, digital literacy and safety.

Here are the other key findings from the report, which includes data from sources such as the International Telecommunications Union, Global System for Mobile Communications Association, Economist Intelligence Unit and others.


  • 45 per cent experienced cyber bullying, either as the bullies or as the victims.

  • 39 per cent reported reputational risks such as compromising or embarrassing photographs shared online.

  • 29 per cent have been exposed to sexual or violent content.

  • 28 per cent experienced cyber threats such as phishing or hacking.

  • 17 per cent acknowledged they have had risky contact, which involves offline meetings or sexual contact with strangers they met online.

  • 13 per cent were at risk for gaming disorder, which relates to the usage of computers, consoles or smartphone games in a way that causes significant disruption to their lives.

  • 7 per cent were at risk for social media disorder, which is a dysfunctionality due to the overuse of social media.


Here is a breakdown of the cyber risks to which Singaporean children are exposed, based on a survey of 11,963 respondents here from March 2017 to December last year.

The respondents formed two groups: Children aged eight to 12, and teenagers aged 13 to 19.

Infographics: Anam Musta'ein/TODAY

Risk of cyber bullying

Children: 40 per cent

Teenagers: 52 per cent

Risk of gaming disorder

Children: 10 per cent

Teenagers: 18 per cent

Risk of social media disorder

Children: 4 per cent

Teenagers: 18 per cent

Risk of exposure to violent content

Children: 27 per cent

Teenagers: 28 per cent

Risk of exposure to sexual content

Children: 19 per cent

Teenagers: 51 per cent

Risky contact

Children: 17 per cent

Teenagers: 31 per cent

Cyber threats

Children: 23 per cent

Teenagers: 50 per cent

Reputational risks

Children: 30 per cent

Teenagers: 46 per cent


The index scored each country according to how well they performed based on six categories: Cyber risks, disciplined digital use, digital competency, guidance and education, social infrastructure and connectivity.

Singapore performed the strongest among all 30 countries in the area of connectivity with its score of 94.7.

It achieved above average scores ranging between 60.8 and 79 for four categories: Cyber risks, disciplined digital use, digital competency, and guidance and education.

But the report found that Singapore needed to do work in the area of social infrastructure, in which it scored just 34.3 — and was ranked 18th among the 30 countries.

This category refers to whether social systems are in place to protect children from cyber risks and promote digital intelligence.

It also identified three areas which form this social system: Legal framework, cyber-security infrastructure and industry engagement.

Although Singapore scored well for its cyber-security infrastructure (80.3), the index was unable to give a score for industry engagement — the extent to which organisations are involved in ensuring the safety of children online.

As for legal framework, Singapore scored a low 7.5. The index found that there was insufficient legislation within the country to promote a child’s online safety.

Dr Park Yuhyun, the founder of the DQ Institute, clarified during a media presentation of the report last Friday that the score for the legal framework was given based on the results of the Economist Intelligence Unit’s Out of The Shadow’s Index.

She said that the report looked only at legislation designed to protect children from online grooming and against child sexual abuse material.

Dr Park added that if she had designed the survey from scratch, she would have looked at other factors which include policies related to online harassment and the protection of personal information. The Economist Intelligence Unit's report did not contain that, she said.

Addressing why no score was given for industry engagement, she said the Economist Intelligence Unit's report had a very narrow definition of this measure and Singapore did not fit it.

“Singapore has a very unique system in having the Media Literacy Council as a collaborative coalition to bring industry participation and digital empowerment which is not very common across the world,” she said. “If I score it, I'll probably give them much more higher than this one.”


Dr Park said that Cosi is a tool that can help countries monitor where they can improve online safety for children.

However, she said that aside from improving government policies, the research found that active involvement by parents and teachers can mitigate the risks faced by their children.

“The problem is that parents don’t think (the online safety of their children) is a big issue… (but) they need to proactively intervene,” she said, citing examples such as monitoring the usage of smart devices and knowing what their children are doing on these devices.

Dr Park said that technology is not inherently evil, but parents need to be aware of the risks involved in giving their children smartphones too early if the child is not digitally ready to safely navigate the myriad of risks they may encounter online.

For instance, the study found that children who owned a smartphone and engaged in screen time that is higher than the weekly average of 32 hours had a 70 per cent chance of exposure to at least one cyber risk.

The report added that being digitally competent, or those having a high DQ score, can minimise this risk and maximise the potential of the digital world for a child.

Dr Park said that parents can find out the DQ score of their children on the DQ World website. The global average is 100.

These scores can be improved by taking part in educational games designed by institutions such as the Nanyang Technological University of Singapore. The higher the score, the lower a child’s exposure to online risks.

“The internet is unfiltered, uncensored and full of information,” Dr Park said. “If there is no filter out there, we need to put the filter in children. That means the children need to have a critical thinking of what to do and what not to do. It is as simple as that.”

Mr Andrew Buay, vice-president of group sustainability at Singtel, said that the results show the need for urgent collective action to make the internet a safer place for children, especially with the prevalence of digital media and devices.

“Through our ‘digital thumbprint’ programme and work with partners such as the DQ Institute, we seek to equip children with the knowledge and digital skills to be safe, responsible and positive online from an early age.”

He added that with the launch of Cosi, stakeholders can effectively identify areas for improvement and work on coordinated responses on a community, national and global level, in order to minimise the risks and maximise the benefits of the digital world for children.

Related topics

Technology cyber bullying children parenting social media gaming

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