Government approval of suicide-prevention mobile app meets controversy
By Patrick Vaillancourt, Senior Columnist
Recent approval of a mobile application in South Korea meant to be used as a student suicide-prevention tool has sparked some concerns in a country known as much for its Internet connectivity as for its high rates of suicide.
The Korean government developed the application and has received Cabinet-level approval to roll it out in the coming weeks. While mobile phones will not be sold pre-loaded with the technology, the government hopes that parents will install the application on their children’s mobile devices.
The app, which detects certain key words and phrases from popular social media networks such as Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram, will also monitor words on popular Korean-made mobile applications, such as KakaoTalk and the Naver search engine and social properties.
Suicide has been a major public health crisis in South Korea for several decades and this small peninsular nation consistently ranks as the worst in the 34-member Organization for Economic Co-Operation and Development (OECD) suicide indices year after year. In the OECD’s 2014 analysis, reports show South Korea having 33.3 suicides per 100,000 people, more than double the OECD average (12.4) and three times that of Canada’s reported suicide rate (11.1). The report also paints a darker picture for Korea, stating that “due to the stigma associated with the act,” many suicides are not reported.
Student suicide is a significant subset of the larger problem, and seemingly more tragic because of the age of those taking their own lives. According to Korea’s Education Ministry, 878 high school students have taken their own lives between 2009 and 2014. Reports from the ministry also reveal that over half of Koreans aged 14 to 19 have reported having suicidal ideations.
Rollout is expected to occur very quickly, giving the government time to test and correct bugs as well as make South Koreans aware of the app before November’s hyper-competitive national college examinations take place.
Understanding the pressures faced by Korean youth requires some historical context. South Korea was born as a poor country and was subsequently devastated by a three-year war with North Korea. Dictatorships in South Korea entrenched in the minds of Koreans the importance of working hard to build the nation up economically, which led to a miraculous economic turnaround that now sees South Koreans living in a wealthy and developed society. The militaristic work style, however, has never subsided and Koreans are overworked and underpaid, oftentimes to the point of depression. In a country that has gone from the deep depths of poverty to the powerhouse it is today, Koreans demand excellence while failure is seen as disgraceful.
High school students are pushed by parents to do well academically, in particular on the national college examinations. Scoring high on the examinations allows a student to enter one of Korea’s most prestigious universities and have almost endless job prospects upon graduation. This pressure is what drives the Korean education industry, as students often go to several private academies after their regular studies for supplementary lessons in English, math, music, and college examination prep. A typical high school student will go to class at 7 a.m. and return home only shortly before midnight. In 2013, Korean parents spent the equivalent of $17.5-billion Canadian on extra education for their children.
Saving face is also a huge part of South Korean custom, and some students who have underachieved academically have taken their own lives rather than facing their families and an uncertain future professionally.
The mobile application will send parents notifications if and when their children send messages or post anything to social media networks which may suggest low or depressed moods, as well as suicidal tendencies. The government is hailing it as the first of its kind, but the education establishment is critical.
The Korean Federation of Teachers’ Association said that the mobile app is a “stop-gap” measure and that more needs to be done to battle the root causes of student depression, adding that there are “various factors which lead to the suicide of students.”
A more liberal union, the Korean Teachers and Education Workers Union, who are ideologically opposed to the government of President Park Geun-hye, issued a statement saying that the mobile app raises privacy issues that have not been tested by the Korean judicial system. “Any direct monitoring of social networks and messaging services raises possible cause for concern,” read the statement.
The union is calling for a more comprehensive approach to dealing with student mental health, including a full review of the national college examination process.
Christina Han, a mother of two with a daughter preparing for the college entrance exams later this year, told the Other Press that any concerns about privacy are far outweighed by a parent’s obligation to keep their children safe from self-harm.
“Privacy is a North American idea. We have a serious problem in my country when it comes to suicide. It is a mark of national shame,” said Han via phone from her home in Seoul. “If being notified of some troubling messages can allow for an intervention for someone who is facing a mental crisis, then it should be embraced.”
Han also notes that most Korean teenagers are reluctant to seek professional help, often turning to friends for guidance.
“An app that will alert me to my daughter’s situation if she were to send an alarming message to a friend will give me a better sense of what is really going on in my daughter’s life.”
Over 600,000 students are expected to write the national college entrance examinations on November 12, 2015, for only a few hundred spots in the country’s elite post-secondary institutions.