Not only does South Korea have the highest suicide rates of in the OECD, suicide ranks as the fourth-most-common cause of death among South Koreans, with especially high numbers among young people, who are tightly ensconced in the country’s hyper-competitive education system that has consistently seen its youth report high levels of depression, stress and anxiety.
In response to what amounts to a major public health crisis, the country’s education ministry recently announced plans for a smartphone app specially designed to screen students’ social media posts, messages and web searches for words, phrases and images related to suicide.
Once anything problematic is detected, the app will send an alert to the parents of students.
Although using the app will not be mandatory, the Education Ministry expressed hope that it will be installed by parents as an additional precaution against school-related stress for their children.
“Student suicide has become a social problem requiring systematic and comprehensive steps to prevent it,” the ministry said in a statement.
A survey conducted by the Korea Health Promotion Foundation found that just over half of South Korean teenagers aged 14 to 19 confessed to having suicidal thoughts. Of that number, more than 40 per cent of those in the survey attributed these feelings to pressure at school and uncertainty about their future.
Teacher unions respond with their concerns
While any move to address the problem is welcomed, the announcement of the app development brought the education ministry under sharp criticism for not addressing the root of the country’s suicide problem –namely, intense academic pressure, coupled with an ongoing stigma of mental health treatment.
A statement by the conservative Korean Federation of Teachers’ Associations said: “Instead of a stop-gap policy, we must work out a fundamental and eventual solution, because various factors lead to the suicide of students.”
The left-leaning Korean Teachers and Education Workers Union, in addition to echoing the view that the app is a stop-gap policy, raised privacy issue concerns.
“Any direct monitoring of social networks and messaging services raises possible cause for concern,” the union said in a statement.
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