Are your children safe on the Internet in Singapore? Top expert tells all

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The Internet provides a world of opportunities for children and their development, but how do we make sure they are safe on the Internet in Singapore?

The Internet has bountiful benefits for increasing the knowledge of our children, how then do we protect our kids from threats and risks that the Internet also brings about?

The Internet Society, a non-profit organisation dedicated to ensuring the open development, evolution, and use of the Internet, has produced a report on Mapping Online Child Safety in Asia-Pacific.

According to the report, Singapore is categorised under “Economies with High Internet Penetration”, and is one of the few countries with legal measures to deal with offenses related to online child grooming.

The report provides an overview on initiatives, existing policies that tackle child online safety and introduces different actors involved in addressing various risks children can face online. 

We managed to interview Mr Rajnesh Singh, Regional Bureau Director for Asia-Pacific, who shared with us how parents and organisations can make the Internet a safer place for children and personal parenting tips. Read on...

Singapore is a country with 'high Internet penetration'. Can you explain what this means? 

In the context of the ISOC's Mapping Online Child Safety Report, countries classified as those with 'High' Internet penetration would mean that  more than 70% of the population has access to the internet.

Other categories include 'Moderate', where only 25-70% have Internet access and 'Low' indicating that less than 25% have Internet access.

Other than Singapore, Japan, Republic of Korea, Australia and New Zealand were amongst the five in the 'High' Internet penetration category, representing that a bulk of the population has access to the Internet. 

What are the positives and negatives of a country having high Internet penetration? What are the main challenges (from a parenting perspective)? 

The Internet brings opportunities for children’s education, self-expression and social development.

But there are also threats and risks, such as access to inappropriate content, harmful interactions with other children or with adults, and exposure to aggressive marketing practices.

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Having high Internet penetration would mean increased access for the population to materials online, which indicates that more benefits can be reaped while exposure to threats are heightened.

Thankfully, as the study has found, economies with ‘high’ Internet penetration have relatively stronger legislation and policies to address a variety of child online safety issues.

These economies tend to have a clear and consistent definition of “child” and “child pornography”, and this includes offences facilitated by all Internet-enabled platforms.

Vis-à-vis countries in the ‘moderate’ and ‘low’ Internet penetration categories, ‘high’ Internet penetration ones not only focus on online sexual abuse and other concerns related to online child protection, but also begun to prioritise online child empowerment.

Singapore, as it continues on its journey to be a Smart Nation, has laws and regulations to help make the Internet a safer space for all Singaporeans.

In the context of child pornography, Singapore has several laws that forbid the consumption of such materials. These include Sections 293 and 376E of the Criminal Code, Section 32 of the Films Act, Sections 11 and 12 of the Publications Act.

Singapore has also gone a step further to introduce legal measures to deal with offences related to online child grooming.

Other measures include Media Literacy Council’s public awareness and education programmes on cyberwellness, and their annual Safer Internet Day, the Ministry of Communications and Information’s Cyber Security Agency’s (CSA) “GOsafeonline” website and Student Activity Books to raise awareness on cybersecurity and personal data protection.

A challenge for parents would be the inability to shield their children completely from the Internet. As mentioned, the Internet has boundless possibilities, and in an interconnected country like Singapore, isolating our children from the Internet may not be the best option.

The question then is how much control do we exercise over our children when it comes to giving them access to the Internet. When and how should they get access to the virtual space? Which platforms are 100% child friendly and if they are not, how can we best protect them from the negative elements?  

internet safety for kids

What are the main concerns for parents related to Internet safety in APAC?

Some key concerns for parents include exposure to inappropriate content, online child pornography, risk of child grooming, becoming victims of cyberbullying, and Internet addiction.

As well, there is the issue of awareness and understanding of what it means to be online and what digital footprint you leave – and this applies to both parents and children.

What is online child grooming? Does it happen/ has it happened in Singapore?

According to INHOPE, an organisation committed to stamping out child sexual abuse from the Internet, online child grooming is defined as "actions deliberately undertaken with the aim of befriending and establishing an emotional connection with a child, in order to lower the child's inhibitions in preparation for sexual activity with the child.

To "groom" a child a paedophile must have a way of communicating with a child effectively in private. To do this they are exploiting the popularity with children of chat rooms and social networking websites.”

Unfortunately, cases of online child grooming have happened in Singapore. Most recently in March 2017, an MMA coach was jailed for using social networking platforms to lure young girls, and secretly filming them engaging in sexual acts with him, which he then added to his collection of child pornography videos.

Do keep in mind that child grooming also happens in the offline world, and is not solely an online phenomenon.

Please explain to us the legal measures Singapore has in place to deal with such offences. 

Section 376E of the Criminal Code titled, “Sexual grooming of minor under 16” states that any person of or above the age of 21 years shall be guilty of the offence if having met or communicated with another person, under 16 years of age, on 2 or more previous occasions where the former intentionally meets the latter or travels with the intention of meeting the latter.

The person who is guilty of an offence under this section shall be punished with imprisonment for a term which may extend to 3 years, or with fine, or with both.

webcam sex tourism

How can parents and organisations make the Internet a safer place for kids? 

There are several recommendations to help ensure the Internet is a safer place for children.

Parents and organisations should strive to be part of a multi-stakeholder approach where there is cooperation and coordination in implementing of policies in Singapore.

Child organisations can work on making digital citizenship a priority when it comes to strategising on how to protect children online.

There should be regular monitoring and research on ways to protect children as part of reactions to cases such as cyberbullying, and also pre-emptive measures to issues like Internet gaming addiction.

Furthermore, parents and organisations have to impart digital skills, including online safety from the earliest stage possible. Parents can also try to employ filtering technologies.

However, these are prone to two simple inherent flaws: under-blocking and over-blocking. Under-blocking refers to the failure of filtering to block access to all targeted content. Contrarily, they likewise often block content they do not intend to censor, also known as over-blocking.

For parents, education is a key element in making Internet a safer place for kids. If you are open to giving your child access to the Internet, then you must be prepared to explain to them the dangers of the Internet as well.

Let them know the warning signs and encourage them to reach out to you if they believe that they are victims of online grooming or cyber bullying.

For organisations particularly the popular social platforms, we need to look into better ways of identifying and removing harmful content – a key issue here would be being able to clearly and consistently define what constitutes harmful content.

Equally important would be who defines this – and how – to ensure that we don’t end up moving into the realm of wider censorship.

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What are your own personal parenting tips when it comes to Internet safety and kids, for Singaporean parents.  

Parenting in the digital age is in many ways different to what it was earlier – more often than not, kids have greater knowledge than parents not only about the digital space, and because of that, on general knowledge topics and what’s happening in the wider world as well.

This then means there is a need to have a far stronger two-way trust relationship with the child, and a need to be able to discuss as openly as possible the potential issues with being online – and more importantly if they are facing any issues.

Equally important is for the parents to have a better understanding of the Internet and what’s accessible online; and why kids get so engrossed with the digital space.

Using the threat of restricting Internet access is not always the best way to approach it – this may lead the child to start hiding things from you (and this could include more serious matters such as cyberbullying and harmful content) or the child may start to find ways of accessing Internet content without your knowledge.

Have a conversation with the child every so often. And engage in the conversation not from a position of authority as a parent, but more so as a friendly casual conversation to better understand what the child likes to do online. Some conversation starters could be:

  • Ask what are their favourite things to do online. And share with them what your favourites are as well.
  • Browse sites together and discuss the content and show genuine interest
  • Discuss what is personal information. What should be shared and what should be kept private? Explain the dangers of divulging personal information
  • Have a discussion on safety online, ask what the child has heard of bad things online, and talk about how they could be safer online
  • Work towards establishing a trust relationship where the child is comfortable talking to you about uncomfortably or scary situations online, and offer some options on who they could talk to. The parent should be the first person they talk to, but the child may not always be comfortable doing so. In this case its good to discuss who else they could talk to e.g. an elder sibling, cousin, teacher, etc.

A few other things to consider:

  • Keep the Internet access device (remember this is not just the computer but mobile phones, gaming devices, tablets etc. as well) in a high-traffic area of the house: so you can observe the child’s interactions online without necessarily inhibiting their privacy
  • Set limits for Internet usage and how much time they spend online
  • Be aware of the sites children are accessing online. Set rules for which sites they can access and what they can use e.g. many social platforms have a minimum age requirement. Help them setup an account in the first place so that you know the information that is being provided
  • Explore various parental control features on devices and activate as appropriate (this includes Smart TVs, Tablet devices, phones, etc.)

The Internet can provide a world of opportunities for children and their development, so its important to look into how these can be maximised.

At the same time, we need to ensure that children have age-appropriate access, and we try to minimise their risks of being online. Ultimately awareness and education are key – for parents and children alike.