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(EDITORIAL from Korea Times on May 17)

National 06:55 May 17, 2023

Teens in crisis
Steps required urgently to address suicide, self-isolation among young people

Korea's suicide rate, still the highest among OECD member nations, has declined gradually over the past decade.

A notable exception is the suicide rate among children and adolescents.

According to Statistics Korea, the suicide rate among people aged 17 and under was 1.2 per 100,000 in 2000. However, the figure more than doubled to 2.7 in 2021. The comparable rate primarily for middle school students aged 12-14 jumped nearly fivefold, from 1.1 to 5.0 persons.

That, along with Korea's lowest birthrate worldwide, casts doubt on this society's health and sustainability. So many buds wither or are trampled long before they blossom. What has gone wrong?

Suicide by teenagers, and its weaker or preceding stage of reclusion, are due to the avoidance of social activities such as study and play. Another possible cause is society itself teeming with limitless greed and competition. All parents here wish the worldly successes of money and reputation for their children ― and only that. Kids unable or unwilling to go all the way drop out of the rat race.

Korea may not be alone. But nowhere else are these phenomena more severe than here. This country industrialized and democratized itself over the span of just two generations and is the only one among 140 nations that became independent after World War II. It is the fifth hardest-working country in the OECD and perhaps the only one that can make Japan appear lazy. Korea and its establishment deserve praise for that and may as well have pride.

However, according to a survey conducted by the vernacular daily Dong-A Ilbo, 29.4 percent of people in their 20s said they "don't like being Korean." As reasons, they pointed to their country being "too competitive," "complicated," and "exhausting." Young Koreans think they have nothing to do with their country's or parents' accomplishments. These only pressure and discourage youngsters who will not and cannot repeat what their seniors did. For the poor, the increasingly hierarchical society also appears hopeless.

In this gloomy social atmosphere, various websites and online communities are mushrooming into the dark side of this IT-savvy country.

About a month ago, a girl in middle school jumped to her death from a 19-story building in Seoul's Gangnam District. The suicide was streamed live on Instagram and viewed by dozens of people. The operator of the website believed to be responsible for abetting the suicide has rejected a police request for a voluntary and temporary shutdown, maintaining that other online sites will continue to remain open. The Korea Communications Standards Commission does not enforce its closure, citing "freedom of expression." Meanwhile, two more teenagers attempted copycat suicides but failed.

The incident reveals two problems.

First, numerous ugly and wicked adults are bent on abusing and exploiting disoriented teenagers. They approach young victims online disguised as helpers, but abuse them sexually and financially offline, encouraging self-harm and suicide and extorting money. More and more teens fall prey to them amid social ignorance and legal leniency. Second, as one former victim said, there is the problem of having "no other adults to talk to," forcing teenagers to visit these websites and risk danger. Parents and teachers are of no help to these desperate kids, some of whom are already injured, mentally if not physically.

What society should do is clear enough.

In the short term, the government must punish individuals and organizations that abuse children and adolescents. It should force relevant online communities to shut down voluntarily by enacting laws if necessary and prosecuting those responsible. Protecting young lives is far more important than freedom of expression. It should also open many "anonymous" ― instead of open and public ― websites through which these youth can communicate freely and frankly.

In the long term, this society and the country should rethink its direction. Korea, where its people, especially younger ones, are almost the unhappiest worldwide, should be where most can live while doing what they want to do without social alienation or economic want.

Aiming to be a wealthier and stronger country is okay. However, what good is this if people are unhappy?


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