The Korea Herald


Livestreamed teen suicides: Nation struggles to block spread

Despite mounting public worries, authorities and experts say there’s little that can be done to moderate social media

By Jung Min-kyung

Published : May 9, 2023 - 16:09

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In the country with the highest suicide rates in the world, a disturbing new trend may be emerging: the live broadcasting of suicides on social media.

On April 16, a teenager livestreamed her death by suicide on Instagram. Such content has been of international concern for some time, but the girl’s death marked the first known case of its kind in South Korea.

Further jolting the nation, two teenage girls were stopped by the police from taking their own lives while livestreaming last Friday.

Aside from their familiarity with social media, all three -- including the deceased – shared one thing in common: They were active on an online forum known as Depression Gallery.

While officials and experts say in principle that moderating live content on social media is a complex challenge, and one that other countries have also struggled to address, calls are mounting for a crackdown on the online forum.

Park Ji-hyun, former co-leader of the main opposition Democratic Party of Korea, said the Depression Gallery should be shut down immediately.

“We have the highest suicide rate among Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development member nations. Teens begin to seek comfort in online communities where it becomes difficult to protect them after being pushed to the edge by this hypercompetitive society,” Park wrote on her Facebook page on Monday.

Depression Gallery is hosted by the anonymous internet forum DC Inside, according to the police. The forum’s initial goal when it was formed in 2015 was to help users overcome their depression by sharing their thoughts and feelings online. However, it appears to have become a place where strangers connect to plan suicides together or attempt to sexually exploit vulnerable minors.

Following the April suicide, the police booked a 20-something male user of the forum on charges of assisting suicide and violating the Suicide Prevention Act. The suspect first uploaded a message on the forum looking for a suicide partner. The deceased victim responded to it and the two met, mapped out a suicide plan on the day of the incident. The man, however, backed out, while the victim carried out the suicide.

They also arrested four other users of the forum --- all in their 20s -- for sexually assaulting several female teen users. The users seem to have taken advantage of the female teenagers' vulnerable state.

The police have also requested the Korea Communications Standards Commission, the country’s internet regulator, to block access to the forum. However, it remained open as of press time on Tuesday.

The KCSC has postponed the decision-making process, citing the need for more time to review the necessity of such an action.

An expert also pointed to the lack of a safety net for teens sharing their vulnerabilities in online forums.

“The forum is for people who want to get better by sharing their feelings, but it fails to block people who want to abuse such users suffering from mental illnesses,” Lee Soo-jung, a professor of forensic psychology at Kyonggi University said in a SBS radio interview on Tuesday.

“When children and teens become victims of such crimes online, it is extremely difficult for them to confess what has happened to them because they’re already feeling mentally betrayed and wounded,” Lee said.

Teen suicide is a major issue in Korea. According to Statistics Korea, the suicide rate for Koreans aged 17 or younger in 2021 came to 2.7 deaths per 100,000 people, the highest since 2000.

Separate Statistics Korea data showed that the No.1 cause of death among Koreans aged between 10 to 39 was suicide in 2021. Suicide accounted for 43.7 percent of the total deaths among those aged 10 to 19, 56.8 percent of those aged 20 to 29 and 40.6 percent for people aged 30 to 39.

Overall, the country recorded a suicide rate of 26 per 100,000 people in the same period, the highest among OECD member countries. Mental illness is known to be the leading cause of suicide.

In the week following the teen’s livestreamed death on April 16, the number of suicide attempt-related calls to the police grew 30.1 percent, compared with the first 16 days of the month, police said.

Aiding or encouraging suicide is illegal in Korea.

If you’re thinking about self-harm or suicide, contact the Ministry of Health and Welfare’s helpline, 1393, available 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. Please request a translator for English-language services.