Suicide Chat Sites on the Web

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Suicide Chat Sites on the Web

The Internet has been blamed for fanning many vices, including pornography, violence and gambling. However, perhaps the biggest shock came when it was discovered that people had formed suicide pacts online and actually carried them out in the real world.

An anonymous call to the police last December led to the bodies of two men who had apparently committed suicide in a motel in Kangnung, Kangwon Province. Tracing the phone call, the police found the third man, the anonymous caller, near the scene of the suicide. The three men, all in their 20s, had met at a suicide site on the Internet and exchanged e-mails about suicide before actually driving together to Kangnung. The third man, identified only as Mr. Kim, told the police that he fled the scene as the two other lay groaning in agony after ingesting potassium cyanide. Mr. Kim was later sentenced to one year in jail for aiding and abetting suicide.

A string of suicides suspected to have ties with Internet sites have been reported since then: a 12-year-old girl who hanged herself, a male middle school pupil who drank herbicide and a 13-year-old boy who jumped to his death from the 15th floor of an apartment building. All the children were found to have frequented Internet suicide sites.

Suicide has become a major social issue in Korea, particularly since the financial crisis of 1997. The number of deaths attributed to suicide, totaling 6,022 in 1997, jumped 42.3 percent to 8,569 the next year as unemployment spiraled. The country's youths have not been spared from what some experts describe as a suicide epidemic. A 1998 survey by the Korea Institute for Health and Social Affairs cited suicide as the second leading cause of death among adolescents. In fact, one in every three adolescents in their late teens reported harboring suicidal thoughts, according to the survey.

Although the authorities swiftly move to shut down suicide sites on the Internet, they have not been able to eradicate them. For every site that is shut down, another one crops up even more clandestinely. "As of April 2, we have ordered 74 sites to make changes," said Hong Soon-chul, head of the harmful information team at the Information Communication Ethics Committee.

The committee shut down a number of the sites but there is very little that it can do given the nature of the Internet and the absence of a legal framework, according to Mr. Hong. "The site operators can make very minor changes and reopen their sites," he said, characterizing the committee's effort as chasing after the sites rather than preventing them in the first place. "We have a team of people who actually become members of the suspect communities to find out what is going on," Mr. Hong explained.

What is going on inside those communities and sites shocked Ha Sang-kun, director of Life Line Korea, a counseling service that offers crisis intervention hot lines in 14 cities throughout the country. "Some of the suicide sites offered very detailed descriptions of ways of committing suicide, the costs involved and the degree of pain for each method," said Mr. Ha.

The danger of those sites is that merely reading the material on a site can plant the suggestion of suicide, particularly in sensitive teenagers who are under a lot of stress. "Adolescents are more vulnerable to suicide sites because they easily succumb to the momentary impulse," warned Mr. Ha, adding that about 15 percent of the 70 to100 calls the center gets daily come from teenagers.

Attributing the mushrooming of suicide sites to the absence of ethics in cyberspace, Mr. Ha suggested that youngsters be inculcated with respect for life. "Youngsters are already very exposed to harmful information on the Web, and regulating cyberspace, while necessary, will not fundamentally solve the problem," he said.

Shutting down the suicide sites will not solve the problem of teenage suicide, agrees Chang Chul-hyun, 33, a psychologist who operates an anti-suicide site on the Internet. About 70 to 80 percent of visitors to his site - on average 1,000 a day - are teenagers, according to Dr. Chang. They post descriptions of the worries and problems they have at school and home. While most of his visitors are not at serious risk, and have problems that can be solved if parents take the time and effort to talk with their children, about 10 to 20 percent are at high risk for suicide. "These are youngsters with depression, which can often lead to suicidal feelings," he explained.

Suicide sites are dangerous for adolescents because of the possibility of collective hypnosis, according to Dr. Chang. Teenagers who may be afraid to actually carry out their suicidal feelings can feel hypnotized into taking action or pressured to ending their lives when they enter those sites, he said.

But teenagers often hint at suicide, and that fact makes teenage suicide preventable. According to the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, a teenager who is planning to commit suicide may complain of being a bad person, give hints that he is considering suicide, put his affairs into order and become suddenly cheerful after a period of depression.

by Kim Hoo-ran

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