Friday night, and I was having drinks at the cafe. Across the table from me were four youngish blokes. Halfway through drinks, delicious perfume hit the air and through the doors strode the slender figure of a lady. One of them recognised her and let out a swift shout “Oi Amanda! What you doing here?!” Interestingly enough, the other 3 put their hands casually into their pockets, fished out their iPhones and from where I was, I could see them fingering the name A-M-A-N-D-A into Facebook. Step aside CID, today’s generation is more effective at fishing out information! (By the way Amanda Choo, according to Facebook, is 26, leggy, loves pink, loves Absolut, has 3 brothers, an attractive sister, works in finance, was shopping for shoes earlier today, speaks with poise but reserved with comments and…is flirtishly single. If you must know)
This is 2012 my friends and before the world ends in a month, I’d like to recollect the rapid changes in how we interact socially. Photographs, for example, was once upon a time, a private thing, reserved exclusively only for the eyes of our closest and dearest. Today, every picture you share has the potential to get intimate with the world. With the practice of screen captures, your picture could go viral even if you did not intend for it to be.
In existence for a while now, is an online Facebook group for children and teenagers. The original intention of its birth is unclear, but it seems peer-influence has taken over and young Singaporeans (some as young as primary-school-going age) are encouraged to post photos, invite people to rate their looks and exchange phone numbers. This has recently gained public attention. “Peer pressure is all about seeing what your friends are doing and then you feel pressurised into doing the same. Social media amplifies the activities of your friends,” explains Wayne Chia, an expert from a local social media agency. “It is not just about pornography or bad influence. Unauthorised credit card use, identity spoofing and stolen identities, these have already resulted in crime and suicides” warned Wayne.
Although Facebook does not allow participation under 13 years old, there is no stopping an individual from faking an age. This paramounts to false declaration, try that as an adult and see what happens to you.
In Singapore at least, there is an ironic conflict of powers. On one hand, parents are not too keen to leave their children alone on social media and the internet, but on the other, they feel guilty about not giving their kids stuff like iPads, iPhones and good computers, for fear that they will be “left behind”.
The attractiveness of social media is in its ability to connect people. The more people are connected, the more powerful it becomes and the more it attracts others. So the more classmates get on, the more others sign up. At some point, there is a social penalty to pay for not being on Facebook… and that’s when parents give in. (Today, in many schools and youth organisations, Facebook is being used by project groups for collaboration and discussion, evolving the medium into a tool of necessity)
“This generation now possess some of the most powerful tools known to mankind. When I was a young adult in the 80s, typewriters and photocopiers were restricted and controlled in the USSR. Contrast that with an average teenager’s smart phone,” mused Jesse Sng, 47, a retired IT consultant. “Their tools have become far more powerful and they engage with an audience more diverse and spread over a larger geographic region than before”.
Can you imbue responsibility in children then? Jesse thinks otherwise, “Very challenging, especially when kids think their parents and teachers are too stupid to teach them anything when it comes to the internet”, he bemoans.
If “the pen is mightier than the sword” and “pictures speak a thousand words”, then the iPhone is today’s nuclear equivalent of an idealogical tool. Could you trust this tool to a teenager? Observe the forums and bulletins. There needs to be conscience about destroying someone or ripping into them just because they had a disagreement of opinion. Forum behaviour is at times, without mercy and cold blooded. The games that kids play today further reinforce that thinking.
Vivian Lee, the girlfriend of troubled NUS law student Alvin Tan (at the heart of the explicit blogging drama) lamented that their videos and pictures were a private affair.
Jesse doesn’t agree. “If it is private, then keep it private. Nobody has taken away their right to do whatever they want in the bedroom but the moment you make something public, then you give up the right to privacy.”
Across the globe, authorities deal with cyber crime the same way they would in the real world. When the couple published videos and pictures of their exploits, they’ve become porn publishers and there are laws that apply.
Filling an existence?
Young people do what they do to meet a need: whether it is gaming, social media or loitering at the void deck. The push outwards to the internet has a lot to do with the emptiness of a modern home and family. Absent fathers and mothers, lack of family interaction and love so kids will seek “love” elsewhere.
A generation or 2 ago, this was found in the brotherhood within a gang. Today, you can find it within your MMORPG (Massively Multiplayer Online Role Playing Games) clan since there’s very little talking to each other and a lot of talking -at- each other at home. They turn to their online friends and Facebook posts. The fixation with the number of friends and “Likes” on a post displays a hunger for affirmation.
Almost everyone I discussed this matter with, spoke of “protection”. But protect from whom and from what? There is a lack of consensus about what constitutes this “vulnerable” group – going by age alone is myopic and shallow. For example, 10 year olds are having sexual intercourse, no matter how many adults choose not to believe it. (See statistics on STD transmission) The maturity level of a child has to be indicated by more than just age, it has to include presence of parental/guardian figures (those who are brought up by maids are not counted), some form of education in school on cyber-etiquette. There is no way to protect children from themselves, much less predators online, when adults themselves aren’t cognisant of the ramifications of making public posts via social media. And there should not be any sort of “cyber policing” because this would be pointless and inefficient. Next, protect children/teens from what exactly? Hedonism? Narcissism?
This magazine believes that this is a matter that requires action further than education and legislation – relationships need to be real, families need to actually do things together. Life needs to be taken offline. It is “peopleware” that’s missing. Rather than becoming too engrossed on how to police and regulate, parents must acknowledge that social media use/platforms are the new norms of interaction, along with its package of loopholes, risks and dangers.
Says Viv Won, 33, a civil servant, “No other way besides proper education of your own children, not neglecting them… and really enforcing those limits. It’s the same with sex, if you don’t put in the effort to talk to your kids openly, and to put in the required time and attention to parent them, rather than leave them to the maids/computer/TV, no amount of regulating will stop kids from irresponsible cyber use, or falling prey to predators.”
“I don’t think social media or usage of it should be villified as the cause of social problems. It is like saying sexual intercourse is the cause of HIV when it is the virus that causes it. The real battle, I think, is in the home. Parents are losing the battle because they simply are not there, they simply do not know how to or can’t foster that kind of trust with their kids, it’s a nurture/education issue, not a Internet-As-Boogeyman issue,” Viv adds.
Scholastic achievement is empty for most students, a bane, a punishment, a chore in fact, especially for a generation that hardly goes outdoors to do anything nor build anything for themselves. It is far more convenient to seek achievement through levelling up a global ranking in their favourite game. Even human relationships, face-to-face are empty because we’ve become focused on things and tasks instead of being interested in each other, so a convenient, online version of a relationship is preferred.
Even life online is more attractive. Don’t like your body and how you look? No need to work at losing weight or exercise, just create a new body and avatar.
In the digital world, you don’t have to live with the consequences of bad choices. Ctrl-Z and everything is undone. However, real life is never fair. And it bites hard. This turned up fast and harsh for the NUS law couple. They believe they can do whatever they want, that’s their freedom, but they are NOT free from the consequences of their actions
This magazine would like to see an official body commission a study into the matter of technology on society, digital influence and conditioning. This study would do well into crafting new policies for the country. In Singapore’s very liberal internet landscape, there is a need for behaviour control and a reminder for responsibility.
But meanwhile, I’ve just sent a message and a friend request to Amanda Choo from the cafe. I hope she replies!