Circulating altered pics is 'cyberbullies' main tactic: Study

An abundance of free picture-altering apps and easy Web access on smartphones is making this form of bullying popular.
An abundance of free picture-altering apps and easy Web access on smartphones is making this form of bullying popular.ST PHOTO ILLUSTRATION: WANG HUI FEN

Study finds more than a third of students aged 13 to 14 were victims

The most common act of Singapore cyberbullies is to alter a person's picture to make it look humiliating or obscene, and then circulate the image online via social media or the WhatsApp messaging platform, according to a local study.

More than one-third of students aged 13 and 14 have been the target of such actions.

Next in line is spreading rumours about a person on social networks like Facebook and Twitter, with one-quarter of students having fallen victim to it, said cyberwellness research firm Kingmaker Consultancy.

Other ways these bullies torment include intentionally excluding a person from an online group, like an online gaming group, and trolling by hurling vicious remarks, said the Singapore-based Kingmaker. It polled about 1,800 students aged 13 and 14 between January and October on this growing phenomenon.

Yesterday, Law Minister K. Shanmugam said the Government plans to put a stop to such behaviour, with new laws to be tabled next year against harassment, whether online or in everyday life.

Citing a Microsoft survey from last year, he said Singapore has the second-highest rate of online bullying out of 25 countries among youths aged eight to 17.

China holds the top spot.

In explaining the main bullying tactic, counsellors blame the abundance of free picture-altering apps and the ease of Web access on smartphones.

These apps allow users to make a person look ugly, old or bald, or add facial blemishes. Some also let users superimpose someone's face on a naked body.

One big draw of these apps is that bullies can be cruel while staying anonymous, said Dr Carol Balhetchet, director of youth services at the Singapore Children's Society.

Another attraction is that it is easier to convince people of a hoax by using a picture, said Media Literacy Council's youth division chairman Nicholas Lim. "Humiliating pictures are also potentially more damaging for victims with low self-esteem and who lack emotional support from friends and family."

The council was set up last year by the Media Development Authority to educate people on how to use the Internet, and to advise the Government on media issues.

In addition, the awful pictures - when posted on such networking platforms as Facebook, Twitter, Ask.fm, Whatsapp or Instagram - pull a bigger crowd to join in the taunting, said Touch Cyber Wellness. The added teasing and cruel comments "would amplify the ill-effects", said its assistant manager Chong Ee Jay.

Touch Cyber Wellness, a Government-backed counselling agency that conducts online safety talks at schools, said cyberbullying has risen in the past four years.

A straw poll it did earlier this year at two schools - one primary and one secondary - found about 15 per cent of 200 Primary 5 pupils had been bullied online and almost three-quarters had seen others do it.

It gets worse. About 30 per cent of the 300 Sec 1 students it polled said they had been victims and nearly all had witnessed these bullies in action.

itham@sph.com.sg