Having a stranger slide into your direct messages on Instagram with a cute compliment like “hello beautiful” might sound harmless, but some have ill intentions. Four final-year Wee Kim Wee School of Communications and Information students have spent the last nine months battling this issue — online child grooming.
The brainchild of Stephanie Wong, Esther Soh, Vanessa Tan and Vinice Yeo (all CS’20), Flag, You’re It is a final-year campaigns project which has garnered much traction in its aim to tackle online grooming.
Online grooming is a form of planned predatory behaviour where an individual forms a trusting and emotional connection with a child so as to sexually abuse them.
When the team began their research last year, they found that online grooming happens to one in two Singaporean youths, and adolescents aged between 13 and 17 are at the greatest risk.
“We were shocked by the statistics and as we were talking about it, it occurred to us that actually, when we were in secondary school this also happened to us or our friends and that it’s quite common.”
Vanessa Tan (CS’20), Flag, You’re It
“We were shocked by the statistics and as we were talking about it, it occurred to us that actually, when we were in secondary school this also happened to us or our friends and that it’s quite common,” said Tan.
They also realised that the issue was not being discussed enough online and in the media, contributing to a lack of awareness among youths that they were being groomed and that the act is illegal.
The overarching goal of the campaign is to create a holistic ecosystem where various stakeholders work together to empower youths.
“We chose ‘friends’ as the first point of contact because a lot of them are afraid to talk to their parents [about grooming]. They shared that their phones might be confiscated or that their parents might overreact,” said Tan adding that peers could then help the victim raise the issue up to a trusted adult.
Through the campaign’s online presence, Flag, You’re It educates youths on the telltale signs of grooming and how to get help. Response has been enthusiastic, with Instagram posts of victims’ stories and message conversations garnering the highest reach.
“Our audience relates to these posts because they are real stories and some of them might even realise that it has happened to them before,” said Yeo.
The team has also received messages from youths who suspect that they or their friends are being groomed, and take the effort to respond to all messages.
One concerned teenager highlighted to them that her friend returned to school with bruises on her neck after meeting an online friend. As the team deemed this to be a severe case of grooming, they redirected the case to a partner organisation to seek professional help.
They also decided to incorporate an exhibition to provide a more immersive experience for youths.
With an initial goal of reaching 500 people through the exhibition, the team was worried about missing their target when the COVID-19 epidemic caused all schools to cancel their learning journeys to the exhibition. But thankfully, their opening weekend managed to garner approximately 750 participants.
“It was quite disheartening for us when the schools cancelled their learning journeys. But, we reached out to teachers and parent support groups and asked them to head down over the weekend.
“A lot of parents and students who have visited the exhibition have come up to us to thank us for doing this. They said that they’re glad that there is someone addressing the issue.”
Vanessa Tan (CS’20), Flag, You’re It
“Quite a few parents came down and after speaking to them, they told us that our exhibition has actually been circulating on various Whatsapp groups,” said Tan.
The group has also been featured by various media outlets such as The New Paper, CNA and Lianhe Zaobao.
While the exhibition was planned to run only in February, members of the public wrote in to the National Library to request that it be extended — so it ran for an additional three weeks in March.
Meanwhile, the online campaign is still ongoing and has no end date yet.
“A lot of parents and students who have visited the exhibition have come up to us to thank us for doing this. They said that they’re glad that there is someone addressing the issue.
“When we started this project, we didn’t know how extensive our impact would be on these students and parents so it’s really a pleasant surprise,” said Tan.