In Box

Web of Despair

Japan shoulders a dubious honor: It has one of the highest suicide rates among industrialized nations. Add a highly wired citizenry and you get a nation emerging as a world leader in cybersuicide, "death pacts" arranged on the Internet. Not only are Japanese strangers connecting in chatrooms and logging on to suicide-related Web sites offering ...

Japan shoulders a dubious honor: It has one of the highest suicide rates among industrialized nations. Add a highly wired citizenry and you get a nation emerging as a world leader in cybersuicide, "death pacts" arranged on the Internet.

Not only are Japanese strangers connecting in chatrooms and logging on to suicide-related Web sites offering encouragement and advice, but some surfers are even going so far as to solicit companions for group deaths. Between February and early July 2003, at least 20 Japanese died, many in strikingly similar carbon monoxide poisonings, after meeting suicide companions online. Such incidents are not entirely new, nor confined to Japan. Three South Koreans initiated the first wave of Internet suicide pacts three years ago. Since then, there have been similar cases in Norway and the United Kingdom.

So, what steps are officials and experts taking to prevent the deaths? Regulation, it seems, is not the key. Parry Aftab, a cybersafety expert and executive director of WiredSafety (www.wiredsafety.org), notes that shutting down suicide Web sites only drives others underground. The right to free speech also complicates regulatory efforts, says Lee Judy of the American Association of Suicidology (www.suicidology.org). A more promising solution lies with organizations dedicated to suicide prevention. The Web sites of suicide-prevention charities Befrienders International (www.befrienders.org) and Tokyo English Life Line (www.telljp.com), for example, provide ready access to counseling and crisis support.

But the expertise and resources of these groups exist primarily through telephone and live counseling. Aftab believes greater focus should be put on combating cybersuicide on its own turf by providing "interactive and instantaneous help online." After all, if suicidal people can turn to cyberspace for companionship and advice about death, shouldn’t they also be able to log on for comfort and encouragement when choosing life?

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