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Cyberbullying, online sexual harassment: More studies needed on why these happen, how to help victims, says SUTD prof

SINGAPORE — More research needs to be done on why people sometimes commit online harm and how victims can be better supported, among other issues, a professor said.

Cyberbullying, online sexual harassment: More studies needed on why these happen, how to help victims, says SUTD prof
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  • The Singapore Together Alliance for Action ended its one-year tenure on July 27 
  • It was set up to help tackle online harm especially that targeted at women and girls
  • Over the year, the initiatives it started included focus groups, polls and developing a research road map to guide future research on online harm

SINGAPORE — After a year of conducting research into online harms, a professor here said much more still needs to be investigated, such as whether perpetrators even realise they might be breaking the law, what online norms embolden people to commit such acts and how best to support victims.

Professor Lim Sun Sun, head of humanities, arts and social sciences at the Singapore University of Technology and Design, was on Wednesday (July 27) speaking at an event to mark the end of the one-year tenure of the Sunlight AfA, also know as the Alliance for Action to tackle online harms, especially those targeted at women and girls.

The grouping is a public-private tie-up aimed at tackling online harm, such as cyberbullying and sexual harassment, especially when targeted at women and girls. Ms Lim was a member of the AfA and conducted research on its behalf.

Research should also be conducted on industry best practices in the technology sector, Prof Lim said, and on how policymakers and advocates can do more meaningful work in this area.

"Where can we direct our energies in terms of setting policies that can help resolve this problem? And how can we help civil society engage in more meaningful, more productive advocacy to help address the issue?"

Online harms are "clearly not going to go away", although they could be moderated with some interventions, and so longitudinal studies on the issue would also be useful, she added. 

The areas highlighted by Prof Lim will be part of a “research roadmap” that will help set the research agenda for online harm for Singapore’s research community, the Ministry of Communications and Information (MCI) said in a press release on Wednesday. 

In a pre-recorded speech at the event, Mrs Josephine Teo, Minister for Communications and Information, noted that an online survey the AfA conducted in January found that nearly half of more than 1,000 Singaporeans polled had personally experienced online harm, the majority of whom were aged 15 to 35. 

Mrs Teo, who was unable to attend the event due to a travel commitment, said in her pre-recorded speech that much progress has been made by the AfA in the span of one year.

It has conducted polls and webinars to raise awareness about online harm across stakeholders such as parents, families and the youth.

Among other speakers at the event were Ms Sim Ann, Senior Minister of State for National Development; and Ms Rahayu Mahzam, Senior Parliamentary Secretary at the Ministry of Health.

Veteran lawyer Stefanie Yuen Thio, who is leading a new charity called SG Her Empowerment (SHE) to help tackle online harm in the longer term, said that the charity will be drawing on research conducted by the AfA to inform its work. 

She also emphasised the need to start interventions and youth engagement early. 

Youth engagement needs to go younger. It needs to be at an even younger age because many male and female gender stereotypes are set by the time children are 12.
Veteran lawyer Stefanie Yuen Thio

“Youth engagement needs to go younger. It needs to be at an even younger age because many male and female gender stereotypes are set by the time children are 12,” Ms Yuen Thio said. 

She also announced that the charity will be working on streamlining a process where volunteer lawyers from the Law Society Pro Bono Services will assist victims of online harm and their families.

Technology was another topic brought up by Ms Yuen Thio, who said that the charity is working with various government agencies on the possibility of using technology to help identify authentic images or videos that may have been posted somewhere without the knowledge of the victim. 

Another speaker, Ms Tham Hui Hui, from the impact and research department at Touch Community Services, said that the organisation is working with children, youth and their parents to teach them cyber values and behaviours. 

Findings from focus group discussions carried out by Touch Community Services and the AfA will also guide the development of an education roadmap, which will outline recommendations on how to deal with inappropriate content. 

Ms Tham added that Touch Community Services also hopes to create a parenting module and toolkit on technology-facilitated sexual harassment to equip parents with the skills to have conversations about these with their children. 

"Touch hopes to continue working with children, youth, educators and parents to strengthen our cyber-wellness work, redesign learning solutions for children and youths, to create programmes for educators and parents on technology facilitated sexual harassment," she said. 

In its statement, MCI noted that the AfA had also conducted a pilot online harm workshop for students from the institutes of higher learning on June 29 to equip young people with basic knowledge to recognise online harm and support their peers.

Given the challenges faced by helpline personnel in identifying and communicating with victims of online harms, the AfA had also developed a list of online harm identifiers, MCI said.

"These lay the foundation for a future helpline and would be used to aid the training of helpline personnel after the AfA’s term."

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