Kids’ vulnerability to online sexual threats a major worry
Children are seeking approval and companionship, say experts, who cite parents as important gatekeepers
When she was 12, she said an adult she trusted convinced her to take off her shirt during a video call and then send him nude photographs of herself.
Feeling guilty and ashamed, she kept the incident buried but struggled with her emotions for a long time, eventually finding the strength to reveal what had happened to Dr Annabelle Chow many years later.
Citing a recent case here, where a serial sex offender had convinced a 10-year-old girl he met on a dating app to send him a nude photograph of herself, Dr Annabelle, principal clinical psychologist at Annabelle Psychology, told The New Paper such incidents could indicate that prepubescent children have a desire to seek approval online.
"The action of swiping left and right on a dating app can be addictive for children. And when someone swipes to accept them, their desire for approval is fed," said Dr Annabelle.
"This then causes them to spend more time on the dating app and subsequently become more susceptible to dangers online."
A study by Google earlier this year found that with the increased amount of time spent online after the onset of the pandemic, children encountered more cyber threats last year.
Mr Lucian Teo, online safety education lead for Google Singapore, said 54 per cent of Singaporean parents reported that their child encountered inappropriate content online last year, up from 38 per cent in 2019.
This included nudity and sexually suggestive content.
In the study, 35 per cent of Singaporean parents also said their child received unwanted attention from strangers online - a new category.
Said Mr Teo: "This rise in the numbers emphasises how cyber threats are important issues revolving around our children's use of the Internet, especially when they may be less adept at identifying negative intentions online.
"These statistics also signal the need for parents to be vigilant, and take up a more active role as gatekeepers and put in place preventive measures to ensure that their children have a safe and positive experience online."
In a case earlier this month where a 24-year-old man was sentenced to 14 years' jail and 15 strokes of the cane after he raped a former schoolmate and preyed on other victims while he was on bail, it was revealed during proceedings that he had also got a 10-year-old girl he met on Tinder to send him a nude photograph of herself.
Justice Aedit Abdullah expressed concern that the victim could access a dating app "meant for adults or at least a much older teen" and hoped the authorities and technology companies would look into the matter.
On Monday, Tinder announced that it will make ID verification available to users globally soon.
Mr Rory Kozoll, head of trust and safety product at Tinder, said in a statement: "We know one of the most valuable things Tinder can do to make members feel safe is to give them more confidence that their matches are authentic and they have more control over who they interact with.
"We hope all our members worldwide will see the benefits of interacting with people who have gone through our ID verification process."
Over the last two years, Tinder has rolled out more than 10 key safety features such as photo verification and face-to-face video chat, in an attempt to reduce anonymity and increase accountability.
Mr Ee Jay Chong, family life specialist and cyber wellness expert at Focus on the Family Singapore, hopes the online threat is taken seriously.
"Recently, I have heard some parents share their concerns about their children interacting with strangers online. It is very worrying," Mr Chong said.
"Parents cannot make light of what can happen online. They are their children's first line of defence and educating their children about 'stranger danger' has become more important than ever."
Clinical psychologist Dr Carol Balhetchet said such incidents may occur from a child's need to seek companionship.
"Aside from the longing to depend on someone, such incidents happen because we are in the unusual season of a pandemic. This means they are socialising on online sites more often than before," said Dr Balhetchet.
Parents obviously play an important role, she added.
"Parents should take up the responsibility to check what sites and apps their children are on. For instance, they can set up house rules to check their children's devices every week.
"Not only does that protect the children, but parents can also sleep well at night knowing their kids are not falling into any traps online," she said.
Dr Annabelle urged parents to consistently talk to their children.
"Parents must remember that having a close relationship with their child is most important," she said.
"Giving the child a safe, non-judgmental space to talk about how they feel allows them to open up, and it will also help parents understand what their child is going through."