Online harms can have severe impact on mental well-being of S'poreans: Shanmugam

Legislation has been passed to empower and protect victims against online harms.

Brenda Khoo | September 25, 2023, 04:54 PM



Only 66 per cent of survey respondents above the age of 15 felt safe online, as opposed to 92 per cent who said that they felt safe walking alone at night in Singapore.

This is according to a survey conducted by Sunlight Alliance for Action (Sunlight AfA) in 2022, as stated by Minister for Law and Home Affairs K Shanmugam.

Another survey conducted in 2023 showed that online harms could have a serious impact on the mental well-being of Singaporeans. Therefore, a top priority for the Singapore government is to stop online harms.

Online Harms Symposium

Shanmugam was giving an opening speech at the Online Harms Symposium on Sep. 25.

The Symposium takes place from Sep. 25 to 27 at the Singapore Management University Yong Pung How School of Law (YPHSL). It is organised jointly by the law school and the Ministry of Law.

It will cover issues on protecting and empowering online harm victims, as well as facilitate discussions on the appropriate legal remedies and laws that these victims can turn to.

Online harms 'leave victims vulnerable': Shanmugam

Shanmugam said that online harms involve a "range of conduct" that leave victims "vulnerable".

According to a 2023 survey by SG Her Empowerment (SHE) (SHE survey), online harms include:

  • Cyberbullying
  • Sexual Harassment
  • Impersonation or Identity Theft
  • Defamation or Falsehoods
  • Image-Based Sexual Abuse

Citing an example of image-based sexual abuse where a person's intimate images are circulated online without consent, Shanmugam said that victims usually can make a police report.

However, it takes time for the police to conduct investigations.

Meanwhile, these images can be circulated more widely on the Internet. And this can cause more harm to the victim. The victim's mental health, reputation, and relationships may suffer as a result.

'Deep & serious impact' of online harms: Shanmugam

The impact of online harms on individuals in Singapore can be "deep and serious", said Shanmugam.

According to the SHE survey, out of over 1,000 respondents over the age of 15, Shanmugam mentioned the following findings.

38 per cent have personally experienced online harms and 47 per cent personally knew of others who have faced online harms. Young women are twice as likely to experience gender-based harms as compared to young men.

He also shared these key findings from other surveys:

  • Only 66 per cent of respondents felt safe online, as opposed to 92 per cent who said that they felt safe walking alone at night in Singapore, according to the 2022 Sunlight AfA survey.
  • Singapore is one of the top 5 countries where individuals are most likely to experience an online risk, as reported by Microsoft.

    More specifically, Shanmugam said that online harms can have a "severe" impact on Singaporeans' mental and emotional health, according to SHE survey:

    • 18 per cent said that they feared for their own safety or that of others
    • 15 per cent said that they suffered from mental health issues, including depression.
    • 6 per cent have attempted self-harm and suicide

    He added, "And you really can’t have generations of young people growing up with these issues, with their mental health amongst other things... seriously affected."

    Survey results 'a reality check': Shanmugam

    Of the survey results, Shanmugam said: "The survey findings are quite sobering. It is a reality check."

    He noted that many Singaporeans would prefer "practical solutions" to quickly take down harmful online content.

    He added: "That seems to be the top priority – stop the harm first. Then, if possible, go for other remedies. This is entirely understandable – logical."

    Around 90 per cent of the SHE survey respondents said that they would find it useful or very useful for harmful online content to be removed swiftly and permanently, Shanmugam highlighted.

    Community efforts to protect online harm victims

    To tackle online harms, efforts have been made to educate and protect young Singaporeans.

    Schools are conducting cyber wellness education to teach students on identifying and protecting themselves from cyber risks.

    TikTok has also collaborated with the government to launch the Youth for Good initiative, which creates peer support systems and cyber wellness content to make cyber spaces safer for youths.

    And the Sunlight AfA has been formed as a partnership between community groups and private companies to tackle online harms, especially those targeted at women and girls.

    Singapore also has its first one-stop support centre for victims of online harm, called SHECARES@SCWO. SHE is an independent and non-profit organisation and runs SHECARES@SCWO.

    Shanmugam said these efforts are good and necessary, but need to be backed up by the right legal framework.

    Harmful online content can be removed through new Online Criminal Harms Act

    Although there are existing laws to deal with technology-enabled offences, Shanmugam observed that these laws are not enough to combat "growing challenges" in the cyber space.

    Existing laws in Singapore include the Protection from Harassment Act if victims face doxxing, online harassment, or are victims of false statements.

    However, he noted that online harms go beyond these offences. More laws are needed to provide legal recourse to online harm victims, to better empower and protect them.

    To protect victims of online harm, the Singapore government recently passed two new laws:

    • The Online Criminal Harms Act
    • The Online Safety (Miscellaneous Amendments) Act

    The Online Criminal Harms Act facilitates social media platforms to be ordered to take down grossly inappropriate content. Such content includes posts advocating suicide and self-harm, child sex exploitation, and terrorism.

    Meanwhile, the Online Safety (Miscellaneous Amendments) Act allows the government to combat scams and other criminal online activities more effectively.

    If you are interested, you can take part in the Online Harm Symposium at a complimentary rate and register your attendance here.

    And you can view the key findings of the SHE survey here:

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    Top image by Fiona Tan.