Ask.fm & you could receive abuse

SINGAPORE - More young people here are committing suicide or harbouring suicidal thoughts, according to a report released by the Samaritans of Singapore. Dependence on social media for validation is listed as a contributing factor.

Judith Tan finds out that young S'poreans are hopping onto new social networks where they are being cyberbullied and parents are none the wiser.

Among the lewd questions asked of a 20-year-old polytechnic student? Her bra cup size.

Others included references to male genitalia, and whether she has prostituted herself. Some are simply rude questions that threaten violence. One user asked her if her make-up will "snow flake" off her face when the questioner slaps her.

Annabel (we are not using her real name to protect her from more bullies) says these questions come fast and furious on an app that has become extremely popular among her peer group, those in junior colleges, secondary schools, and in some cases, primary schools.

Called Ask.fm, it allows users to log in anonymously and ask someone questions.

The answers, which can include photos and video, are posted to their profiles, as well as to a real-time feed of responses.

When one logs in, the questions range from the fairly innocent and clean to the steamy and downright hateful.

Annabel says she is made of sterner stuff and tries to respond to the lewd questions with humour.

But the tough demeanour she portrays cracks a tad when she admits it can be hurtful, especially since some of the questions are so personal they can only come from people, like her classmates, who know her in real life.

"I believe the anonymity gives them the courage to ask me questions they had always wanted (to ask), and say things that wouldn't say to me directly."

Experts say this is a clear cut case of cyberbullying.

Ask.fm has been linked to a handful of suicides overseas. The scary part? While there are signs that such anonymity sites like Ask.fm, Whisper and Secret are growing in popularity among tweens and teens in Singapore - a Google search, for instance, turned up pages and pages of young Singaporean members on Ask.fm - parents, teachers and counsellors seem to have no clue.

"I don't even know where to start looking for these sites, let alone what they are," admits the executive director at Singapore Children's Society (SCS) Alfred Tan.

According to some reports. Ask.fm has wracked up 57 million users and is adding members at a rate of 200,000 a day.

"Many of the polytechnic students here have been on Ask for some time," Annabel says.

Dr Carol Balhetchet, director of youth services at SCS, says that young people may not understand the risks of sharing such personal information and giving people power to bully them.

Psychiatrist Adrian Wang says it is this naivety that makes the young "much more trusting" and gives them a false sense of security.

"They remain untainted by cynicism and fear, and often believe that people, including strangers, are inherently good," Dr Wang says. "They also don't realise that the personal information they disclose to strangers can be used to harm them. Their response is usually 'Why would anyone want to do that?'"

Dr Balhetchet says: "These sites open the doors to the secret world of teen crushes and insecurities. By allowing members to mask themselves, they fuel the confidence of bullies and trolls. It is the perfect tool for predators to get into the minds and under the skin of potential victims."

Plus, young people may not have the ability to handle the hate and vitriol.

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