Many tweens meeting up with online strangers
"DON'T talk to strangers" is what parents often tell their children.
Yet children today are not only chatting with strangers online, but also meeting them in real life.
A poll of 2,500 upper primary school pupils and secondary school students found that a third of the older students and a tenth of the younger ones have met up with someone they had first met online in the past year.
About a third of the students who had those meet-ups rated the encounters as slightly or very unpleasant, meaning that they would think twice about meeting the person again or not meet the person a second time, as negative things have happened.
Chong Ee Jay, manager at Touch Cyber Wellness, a voluntary welfare group that teaches Internet safety, said: "We did not ask them to specify why they were unpleasant as some may be uncomfortable sharing it but anecdotally, we have heard cases of bullying, scams and sexual predation."
The survey was done by Touch from January to May this year to better understand online behaviour among the young, especially towards befriending strangers online.
Mr Chong said they wanted to collect data on this issue as there have been a number of cases reported in the news about online friends who turned out to be child sex predators.
In Singapore's worse case of sexual abuse of boys so far, a 31-year-old Malaysian engineer was sentenced to 30 years' jail and the maximum 24 strokes of the cane in March for sexually assaulting 31 boys, some as young as 11, whom he met online.
He used different identities to befriend the boys on Facebook and tricked some of them into thinking that they had mutual friends.
Digital media experts and counsellors say that while children are more socially savvy nowadays, they need more guidance on protecting themselves both online and offline as more youngsters take the interactions beyond their screens.
The Touch survey showed, for example, that the second most cited reason for young people meeting online friends face-to-face is to transact online purchases, after the top reason of making friends.
Correspondingly, the top two platforms named by the children and teens in getting to know the people they eventually met are social networking service Facebook and Carousell, an online marketplace. The other channels are online games, Instagram or Twitter.
"With the proliferation of such platforms, it is easy for any ill-intentioned stranger to befriend someone on multiple sites to piece together all the information on the victim that would allow him to come up with a better strategy to target the person," said Mr Chong.
"For upper primary pupils, they are impressionable and may be unable to discern well enough to protect themselves," he added.
For example, he has managed cases where the person who went for the meeting does not match the description given or his online profile picture. These people may be sexual predators or scammers out to cheat the sellers by making off with the products without paying.
In other cases, a group of people may turn up instead of an individual to bully the child and extort money from him.
Carol Balhetchet, senior director for youth services at the Singapore Children's Society, said that individuals sometimes turn out to be "a lot older than they said they were and they may want more than just to hold your hand".
"The danger is that the younger person is put in a compromising situation and it is hard for him or her to say no because they want to be socially accepted."
Delane Lim, who heads Agape Group Holdings, a youth development organisation, said guidelines should be set for young people who want to meet people they have befriended online. "If anything, it's safer to go on group dates rather one-to-one meet-ups," he said.
Mr Chong said meeting online friends has become a cultural norm so it would be more fruitful to get more teachers and parents to guide them than to stop these meetings.
"Cyber wellness and civics and moral education lessons in schools must equip them with critical thinking skills in knowing what to do in different situations and more channels, such as anonymous hotlines, for them to seek help beyond the police must be set up."