Women and girls enjoy less freedom in the online space than in real Singapore: Sim Ann

Teens encounter sexual harassment and physical assault as a result of interactions on social media. ST PHOTO: KUA CHEE SIONG

SINGAPORE - In her course of work at the Ministry of Communications and Information, Ms Sim Ann has encountered cases of victims who experienced online harm.

"From time to time, they've approached us to say 'my photos were stolen'," she said.

Listening to such stories prompted her to speak to more Singaporeans to understand the dangers women and girls face online.

Ms Sim, who is Senior Minister of State for Communications and Information, said: "We have to ask ourselves, do our women and girls enjoy the same degree of freedom and confidence in the online space as they do in real life in Singapore.

"The signs suggest there is a gap."

She was particularly struck by a related video that The Straits Times produced last month.

The video InstaSex had delved into the stories of teens who encountered sexual harassment and physical assault as a result of interactions on social media.

"I think that really hit home. As an MP, when we hear about (such cases), it's usually because something has already happened. Someone has already become a victim.

"But we may or may not interact with the victim directly. Sometimes they come through an intermediary, such as a family member."

Ms Sim, a mother of three, also got her 17-year-old son and 14-year-old daughter to watch the video with her.

"They felt concerned and felt like they learnt something, so I think it shows that actually I got them in time.

"That's also part of what I hope education can do, which is to reach the young in time, before they either become victims or perpetrators of online harms."

Getting the message across to boys at an early age is also critical, she said, "so that they don't grow up thinking that a certain way of approaching girls and women online is normal".

Friends who are parents told her they were alarmed and concerned to see the obscene images and messages young people are exposed to online, said Ms Sim.

"This is part and parcel of levelling up everybody's knowledge about today's reality. (Parents) also need to come to terms with the fact that as digital natives, children may well lead quite a different lifestyle from them," she added.

"So it's not about taking things away from them - walk in their shoes a bit, understand what's happening, and restore that parent-child connection."

Join ST's WhatsApp Channel and get the latest news and must-reads.