Chats with strangers online may not be worth risk: Experts
Young people are using bots to match themselves with other anonymous users, hoping to make friends
She simply wanted to make new friends and get to know other university students like herself anonymously on Telegram.
However, her first chat was with a male user who suggested that they exchange explicit pictures or engage in phone sex.
Ms Belinda Au, 20, was using a university chatbot service that matches two online users through an algorithm.
The first-year student at Nanyang Technological University (NTU) told The New Paper she expected a "fun and wholesome" conversation and was shocked when the exchange quickly went south.
Said Ms Au: "I was a bit wary because I did not know him at all. He was quite persistent even though I made it clear I was not interested."
After obtaining his personal details for identification, Ms Au ended the chat and reported the user. Her experience is just one of a few harassment incidents that transpired via the chatbot since its launch on June 1.
Its creator, Mr Aalden Tnay, 21, an incoming freshman at the National University of Singapore (NUS), told TNP that his intention was for students to make new friends.
With separate bots for students from the six autonomous universities, including NUS, NTU and Singapore Management University, the chatbot service, as a whole, has gained in popularity with over 43,000 active users currently.
Psychologist Frances Yeo said the high number of users is not surprising, and it is likely to increase.
"Our younger generation grew up with smartphones and social media, so I believe using such platforms would be second nature to many of them. The bots are easy to use, and there are no barriers to entry," she said.
NEED FOR CONNECTION
Psychologist Evonne Lek said the lack of physical interactions amid the Covid-19 pandemic likely fuelled the need in the youth for connection in other ways.
She added: "With social restrictions in place, the emotional loneliness and isolation that the youth typically face are even more pronounced."
Ms Lek explained that young people are drawn to anonymous chats as they can fully express their emotions in a "safe space without judgment".
This anonymity is a key feature of the chatbot, which serves as a "middleman" to connect two anonymous users in a conversation.
Users can end the chat whenever they wish to, without exposing their contact details to the other party.
Online chat rooms such as Omegle operate on similar algorithms. However, unlike those websites, Mr Tnay's Telegram bot has an in-built "report" command that automatically records the username of the harasser and blocks him.
"There will always be some people who misuse the bot, but user IDs are tracked in our database, and once a user is reported and banned, he is banned permanently," said Mr Tnay.
More than 200 users have been reported and banned, though not all were for harassment issues - some were simply users who were not university students.
"The gap we are filling here (in terms of social connection) deserves that leap of faith, even if it takes a while to weed out the abusers," he added.
Ms Nicolette Wee, a second-year NTU student, was thrilled she hit it off with a fellow NTU student via the chatbot, and found that she and the woman are neighbours too.
Ms Wee, 21, had been matched with incoming freshmen who had questions about campus life, and she was glad she could help.
Ms Au was not deterred by her bad experience. She continues to use the chatbot on occasion and has made a few friends.
Nevertheless, both psychologists had their reservations about whether the benefits of such a platform outweigh the dangers.
Ms Yeo warned against the concept of anonymity, explaining that such platforms are "often the ones used to scam teenagers into prostitution or selling drugs".
"I think anonymity is not a risk we should take at all. One victim of abuse is already one too many," she said.
Ms Lek added that users should not rely on online platforms to make friends, as long-term use can make it more difficult to reintegrate into the offline community.
"The youth might be used to the feeling of safety when online and thus feel more anxious when interacting in person. They will become desensitised to social cues or peer interaction and will have to relearn these social skills," she said.