Sixteen-year-old schoolgirl Sofea* (not her real name) got to know a 17-year-old schoolboy, Ryan* online during the pandemic and became friends.
They chatted online, shared images and videos with each other, but not intimate ones.
Subsequently, after the movement control order, they met up and hung out. He even introduced her to all his friends, got together at a mutual friend’s house, and all seemed well.
Then one day, Ryan told Sofea that he wanted to be “more than friends”. Unfortunately, she didn’t feel the same about him.
That was when Sofea’s nightmare began. Unbeknown to her, Ryan had secretly filmed her while she was using the toilet at the mutual friend’s house. He uploaded the pictures and videos of her online, saying derogatory things about her.
“My whole world was turned upside down. I couldn’t sleep, I couldn’t eat, I couldn’t concentrate on my studies. I was afraid my parents would find out,” says Sofea.
Children are exposed to online harassment and abuse such as cyberbullying and trolling, and while we can’t stop them from going online, we can teach them how to keep themselves safe, says Women’s Centre for Change (Penang) project officer Yeap Yen Ying.
Cyberbullying is bullying that takes place online using digital devices such as handphones, desktop computers and tablets. It can happen through text such as WhatsApp or SMS; on social media such as TikTok or Instagram; in online forums, chatrooms and message boards such as Reddit, or even in online game communities, she says.
She adds that it includes sending, posting or sharing negative, harmful, mean or false content about someone.
“This might also involve sharing personal or private information that causes embarrassment or humiliation towards someone. And it’s usually targeted towards someone they know,” says Yeap.
“For example, if the cyberbully doesn’t like somebody, they might post nasty comments about them on social media. The post might also be forwarded to others to make the victim look bad but actually, he’s not a bad guy, but is just being bullied,” she explains.
Trolling is a type of cyberbullying that is common on Twitter and other social media.
“Trolls take advantage of the ‘anonymous’ nature of the Web to post hateful messages, usually to those who are unknown to them.
“The main difference between a cyberbully and a troll is the former uses the Web to hurt others, while the latter uses it to stir up online communities and attract attention to themselves,” she explains.
Recognise the signs
When a child is a target of cyberbullying or trolling, they might exhibit certain signs or symptoms, says Yeap.
“There will be a change in their usual behaviour. A typically cheerful child might seem quiet, sad and withdrawn. They might also withdraw themselves from social activities or people,” she says.
“But if a child is the target of an online predator, they might become secretive about their activities on the phone. They might also spend an excessive amount of time on the phone. Alternatively, they might also seem anxious or nervous every time they receive a phone notification,” she adds.
Yeap advises children who have encountered such things to first tell their parents or a trusted adult such as a teacher or relative. She emphasises that children need to realise that they’ve the right to say no if they don’t feel comfortable with anything.
“Children need to be taught about how social media works. There are different types of people on social media. Not all are good people, some are nasty and give mean comments. So if you feel bad because of those nasty comments, then maybe you can take time off from social media and your devices,” she says.
“Other than for studies, don’t be online so you limit the access those bullies have to you,” she advises.