Teens livestreaming video with interactive app get derogatory comments, abuse from strangers

Using Bigo Live, anyone can stream their lives for strangers to gawk at.
Using Bigo Live, anyone can stream their lives for strangers to gawk at.PHOTO: THE NEW PAPER

SINGAPORE (THE NEW PAPER) - Move over, Snapchat.

Singapore kids are spending hours on a new app - one that is from a local company, no less.

Meet Bigo Live, a live video streaming app that has been in the top five of Apple's app store here from July till last month.

Its appeal seems to lie in the fact that it is a combination of Periscope (Twitter's video live-stream app), Snapchat (a multimedia messaging app), and Mukbang (an online broadcast where the host eats large quantities of food while interacting with the audience in exchange for money).

Power up Bigo Live on your smartphone, and you are invited into any number of bedrooms, classrooms, workspaces, or any place for that matter, where young people are streaming whatever they are doing at the time.

Other users of the app can watch them and interact with them, by commenting on what they are doing, asking them to do certain things, or even asking for their contact details.

In other words, it is voyeurism made easy - and legal - with the consent of the streamers.

But allowing strangers into their lives in this manner does have pitfalls. Several young streamers, especially teenage girls, have had unsavoury experiences.

Some of them, who look to be in their early teens, are brazenly asked by strangers to dance and show off their bodies.

When The New Paper used the Bigo Live app over the past few days, a number of streams by teenage girls invited comments by users asking them to "perform".

For example, a young woman who was streaming with a close-up of her face willingly moved her smartphone to show her body in a camisole dress after a viewer asked to see it.

Other girls have borne the brunt of nasty comments, including racist jibes, about their bodies and abilities.

Bigo Live users whom TNP spoke to said they had seen such comments. Some of them have been targeted.

But derogatory comments are not the only kind of negative attention experienced by users.

Miss Joanna Chia, 17, who mostly sings or responds to comments by users when she streams, said the worst comment she received was: "You're a slut, and you shouldn't be on Bigo."

She told TNP: "I don't let myself get affected by it. I feel that no one has the right to judge a person, just like how you can't judge a book by its cover."

Last week, a primary school pupil streaming on Bigo Live danced in her school uniform. Viewers commented on her skin colour and cast racist slurs at the child.

A few days later, an Indian foreign worker, who used the app to live-stream, also received abusive comments.

SEXUAL GROOMING

Dr Lim Boon Leng, a psychiatrist at Gleneagles Hospital, said that the app could end up as a platform for the sexual grooming of minors - befriending and establishing an emotional connection with a child to lower the child's inhibitions with the aim of sexually abusing the child.

He said: "When users ask streamers to pose and praise them for it, they may be led on to show more and more, which can become dangerous, especially if the users ask to meet them in real life."

Dr Lim said that teenagers are likely to be susceptible to such requests as they tend to be more impulsive.

"Teenagers are at that point in their life where they consider consequences much less than adults, and they think that they no longer need to seek permission from parents as they are no longer children."

Dr Lim also suggested that the app could encourage narcissism.

He said young streamers could try to get likes, to see if people like them enough to get them gifts, and that the monetary rewards may entice young streamers.

"(In this app), you can get real-life gains. Though the amount may seem little for some, children may think it is a great sum," he said.

Mr Daniel Koh, a psychologist at Insights Mind Centre, described such derogatory comments and racist remarks as "something that can be quite explosive".

Because the app is live, a negative remark could trigger another negative remark.

"And this can get the passion rolling very fast, whereas on an app such as Facebook, it can take a while for people to comment," he said.

Perhaps wary of the app being misused, Bigo Live flashes an advisory on every live-stream to warn users that they will be banned or have their accounts suspended if their stream "contains smoking, overtly sexual acts or illegal content".

The advisory also says the app is reviewed 24 hours a day "to keep the community safe and open".

Lawyer Ravinderpal Singh said the creators of the app may not be liable if its users break the law. The lawyer from Kalco Law compared it to a telephone line.

He said: "It is only a medium that is used for harassment. A phone line cannot be at fault when users harass on the line. So far, none of the social media platforms have been held liable for harassment that happened on the app."

The app also has a mute function, which allows people to completely block specific users from sending them messages.

However, Mr Singh says that under the Protection from Harassment Act, users could be liable for harassing others on the app.

Offenders can be fined up to $5,000 and/or jailed up to six months.

When users ask streamers to pose and praise them for it, they may be led on to show more and more, which can become dangerous, especially if the users ask to meet them in real life.

WHAT IS BIGO LIVE?

Bigo Live is a live-streaming app available globally in Google Play and Apple app stores.

According to SimilarWeb, it held the top ranking in the Singapore App Store for five days until Pokemon Go took its spot on Aug 6. On the Google Play store, the app has more than 10 million downloads worldwide.

It takes a mere tap to start streaming live video. When users are streaming, they can receive rewards from other users, who buy "diamonds" to get stickers of items like flowers, a supercar or a ring to give to users they like. The diamonds (the app's currency) are bought with real money.

Each item's value will be added to the streamer's "bean" count and when they reach 6,700 beans, they can cash out the beans for money - 210 beans equal US$1 (S$1.36).

PROBLEM CASHING OUT

However, Singapore users told The New Paper that when they tried to cash out their beans, a message said that only those with bank accounts in Thailand and Indonesia could do so.

Singaporean user Kereen Hong, 19, said she encountered this problem when she tried to cash out her 37,000 beans.

Bigo Live seems to be focusing on the South-east Asian market, with heavy promotion of social media personalities and Bigo "models" from Thailand, Indonesia and Vietnam on its official Facebook page.

TNP tried to contact Bigo Live through its e-mail, Facebook page and Twitter account, but did not receive a reply by press time.

We visited the company's registered address in Suntec City, but the unit has been taken over by a real estate company.

We also went to the address listed on its website, on another floor in Suntec City, and it was empty. A concierge said the company had moved out earlier this week.

According to the LinkedIn profile of Jianqiang Hu, who is listed as a co-founder of Bigo Live, the company is "invested" by YY, inc, a tech company headquartered in Guangzhou, China.

A media expert, Mr Lars Voedisch, managing director of PRecious Communications, told TNP that live-streaming social media apps, such as Bigo Live and Periscope, will be a new trend.

"The current focus is on live broadcasting, but there is still a lot left unexplored with this new form of social media interaction...

"It is definitely an app to watch."

He said that Bigo Live's popularity could be attributed to what today's teenagers value: social validation.

"Their identities online matter as much as... their identities offline. So an app that allows them to not only show their talents and share their interests, but also allows them to gain fans and earn money would definitely seem attractive."