Wednesday 20 November 2019
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todayonline - 11 days ago

Confessions pages — where students reveal their innermost thoughts and troubles, and universities are listening

SINGAPORE — An original poster (OP) claiming to be a National University of Singapore (NUS) student with clinical depression posts on a Facebook page about how she feels inadequate as a girlfriend. She adds that she “cries at least once a day” and does not see “what’s good enough about me”. Though many might suspect the post to be fake due to its anonymous nature, the university’s health centre — which has an official Facebook page — left a comment on the post, nevertheless, offering counselling to the student. Another post on the page features another OP claiming to be a student detailing an incident where the OP’s father — who works as a cleaner — was chided by a woman based on his appearance. The post has more than 10,000 reactions and almost 7,000 shares. These are just some posts on NUSWhispers, a “confessions page” that features posts from a wide array of personalities claiming to be students, alumni, or members of the public — there is no way to verify. Confessions pages like NUSWhispers are pages on social networking sites such as Facebook, that are usually started in schools and universities by a member of the community — usually a student — for members of that community to post anonymously on. The administrators can then choose which confessions to post on the page, while members of the community and the public can react or comment on these posts. Apart from NUS, the Nanyang Technological University (NTU) and the Singapore Institute of Management (SIM) also have their own confessions pages, featuring content similar to NUSWhispers’, with these pages boasting tens of thousands of followers. These posts range from academic advice — module recommendations and exam strategies — to relationship advice — such as how to navigate breakups. The posts also veer to darker areas such as fetishes and confessions that are more sexual in nature, right down to those who post about mental health — from experiences with depression to suicidal thoughts. Associate Professor Ben Leong at NUS’ School of Computer Science told TODAY that NUSWhispers originally started out as a class project. The project was part of a module on building web applications, and was started in April 2015 by students Erin Teo, Melvin Lee, Zhou Yichen and Yangshun Tay. They are still the page’s administrators. The four, aged between 26 to 30 and who all graduated in 2015 to become software engineers, said in a joint reply that while the page was created to “give students a voice and encourage cross-faculty discourse,” it should “never be taken seriously and should never be a legitimate source of information”. Assoc Prof Leong chimed in to say that “some of the posts are obviously fake”. These pages have been the source of controversy. Recently, an OP on NTU Confessions claimed that a man, using the Telegram Group NTU Ride Kakis which offers ride sharing services, had driven to a car park to molest her instead of ferrying her to her intended location. NTU told TODAY that at the time the university was concerned to learn that the case “had not been reported to us”, and encouraged the student to contact her school or the Student Affairs Office, so that the school can provide her with the necessary support. The school added that the student had since stepped forward and “is receiving support from NTU’s pastoral care team.” Confessions pages are not peculiar to Singapore, with a Reuters report in 2013 noting their rise in American universities. These pages had then been thrust in the spotlight for the wrong reasons — for putting up posts that had “sexually explicit content directed at specific individuals” and “hateful language”. Many had been shut down by Facebook as a result. More recently, British youth news site The Tab reported in April that there had been an upward trend of students in major British universities using confessions pages to talk about suicide. Confession pages tagged to universities such as Oxford and Cambridge have up to 15 per cent of posts related to mental illness, the news site added. UNIVERSITIES TAKE NOTICE Even with the potential repercussions from some posts, the universities here said that they take a hands-off approach to these pages. NUS said that it “does not own the page, and is not involved in the administration of the page, or the moderation of posts on the platform”. Similarly, NTU said that “there is no link between NTU and the NTU Confessions Facebook page, which is run independently by its administrators”, while SIM said that SIM Confessions is not an official school platform and it has “no control over the page and posts”. However, the universities do have their own ways of keeping a lookout. NUS said that “the University may, on occasion, provide clarifications” when there are inaccuracies or misinformation about NUS-related programmes on NUSWhispers. NTU similarly said in a statement that there have been previous instances of its student volunteers from the NTU peer helping programme and other students providing their advice on the platform. Some administrators have also come up with community guidelines for the posts. NUSWhispers reminds its users on the submission page to be “socially responsible”. “No racial, religious or other forms of sensitive material. These entries will be rejected,” it added. Mr Cayden Lim, who was previously one of SIM Confessions’ administrators, said that while it does not have concrete guidelines, the administrators use their own discretion in choosing which submissions to post. They will not post “any confessions that may result in discord, be it regarding religion, (sexuality), race, or the doxxing of any person.” A LEGITIMATE PLACE TO VOICE ONE’S CONCERNS? Many of the posts, though best read with a pinch of salt, feature confessions of those in positions of vulnerability: With OPs claiming to have mental health issues, struggles with their sexuality and problems with their families. In many cases, the comment sections offer some encouragement. “Talk to a counsellor”, “you can talk to me”, “don’t give up”, “I survived, so can you”, are just some comments that TODAY has seen. Many have also left helplines and contacts of non-profit social welfare organisations such as the Samaritans of Singapore and helplines for those in the LGBT community that may have faced abuse. However, snarky and demeaning comments, though few and far between, were also spotted. “Want to take this to Parliament?” said one on a post from an OP struggling with depression. “Strawberry”, read another comment on the same post. Mr Ng Kah Wee, one of the administrators of NTU Confessions, said that in recent years he has seen an “increasing trend” in depressed youths. Most are related to loneliness, or not knowing what they want to do in life after graduation. The final-year mathematics major added that “the comments from our page are generally positive and encouraging and I hope that this way of doing things continues”. Agreeing, Mr Lim said that despite the negativity some comments can generate, the SIM Confessions page ultimately serves as “a platform to seek help from peers”. “As many graduates are also subscribers to the page, they are able to provide advice based on their experience and encounters,” said Mr Lim, who graduated from SIM in 2015 and now works as a writer and social media manager. Although the posts do have the potential to uplift and encourage those who feel they have no one to turn to, experts warn that these OPs should know that there are risks involved. NUS’ associate professor of sociology Tan Ern Ser said that for some, confessions pages serve as a “safety valve for penned up tension.” “I reckon they are also seeking for listening ears and emotional support in a safe platform,” said Dr Tan. But he warned that “the danger is that they may receive unhelpful responses which would be counter-productive.” Psychiatrist Dr Lim Boon Leong, whose interests include depression and mood disorders, said that those who comment on anonymous platforms have no reason to do so with much thought. On the other hand, those who post comments on their personal accounts where their identities are known to others “will be more careful,” said Dr Lim. He added that an open site would be less useful, as people are not obliged to provide any meaningful or helpful comments. On how these pages can better help students, Dr Lim said that it is up to the page administrators. He said that these administrators should bear responsibility for what is posted and are “morally obliged” to act on posts that do not fulfill the “purpose” of the page. He added that these pages could also be better “categorised” so that “individuals with similar problems can discuss their experiences and help support one another, akin to a support group”. Ultimately though, anyone who submits posts to these pages should do so with the awareness that they may not always receive constructive or genuine advice, he said. “If (the OP) knows what is the purpose of the page and accepts the risk, then it’s ok.” Dr Lim said that for serious matters, one should seek professional help rather than bare one s thoughts on confessions pages. “Face to face evaluation and diagnosis, counselling and therapy is still important, particularly if the problem is more severe, more complex one or if a psychological condition truly exist. Such confession pages cannot substitute professional treatment.” NO END IN SIGHT FOR THESE PAGES The page administrators whom TODAY spoke to hope that the pages will be kept alive. Most, who have already graduated, have passed the baton down to younger batches, or are in the process of doing so. Mr Ng, whose administrator duties were passed down to him by his seniors, said that “we will not close shop as long as I am here and also, as long as the people still submit confessions”. The 24-year-old said that when he graduates, he will pass the role down to his juniors to “continue this legacy”. Mr Lim has already passed his duties down to a motley crew of three SIM undergraduates. One of them, who did not want to be identified, said that he is looking to make the page more automated. He added that it would be good if the page could be monetised to better sustain its operations. Likewise, the administrators of NUSWhispers said that they “will look to recruit more moderators when the need arises.” Assoc Prof Leong, however, did not expect a page that he indirectly started four years ago to not only survive, but thrive the way it has. “Actually, I am quite surprised that NUSWhispers is so active after so many years,” he said. “Most class projects die.” Not all confessions pages are associated with educational institutes. The Singapore Armed Forces (SAF) has a page named after it — SAF Confessions, where posts by those claiming to be from the organisation once aired their thoughts and experiences in the military. The page has 34,000 followers, and was a popular platform with throngs of likes and comments before it became inactive in 2016. In response to TODAY’s queries on the SAF’s policy on the platform’s postings, a Ministry of Defence (Mindef) spokesman said that “operational security is of cardinal importance to Mindef and SAF” and that unauthorised disclosure of official information is a serious offence under the Official Secrets Act. “To ensure that servicemen are kept updated on our policies, regular briefings and education programmes are conducted,” the spokesperson added. “Servicemen are also regularly reminded of the importance of good cyber hygiene and the responsible use of social media.”


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