National / Social Issues

Alternative measures targeting young people in Japan at risk of suicide

by Asuka Ichikawa

Special To The Japan Times

The growing prevalence of smartphones in recent years has forced government and welfare organizations to rethink their approach to creating awareness campaigns targeting youths at risk of suicide.

A recent survey conducted by the Cabinet Office showed that the number of high school students who owned a smartphone had risen from 54.8 percent in 2012 to 93.6 percent in 2015. The same survey showed that students aged between 10 and 17 spent an average of 136 minutes online on their smartphones each day.

Vickie Skorji, lifeline director at TELL Japan, says such statistics clearly show that traditional awareness campaigns are missing the mark.

“We don’t get as many calls from young people as we would like and that has been something we’ve been trying to do for the past five years,” Skorji says. “How do we engage them? Lifelines around the world are also struggling with that. Young people are less likely to pick up a phone and that is why we are thinking of moving into chat and other sorts of mediums.”

TELL Japan launched a free and anonymous chat counseling service on Saturdays. The service is available each weekend from 10:30 p.m. on Saturdays to 9 a.m. on Sundays and is open to any English speaker over the age of 13.

Skorji says that counseling by text message has so far proven to be effective.

“We found that people were more likely to identify their problems faster,” Skorji says. “You can’t see callers or hear their voices, so they feel as if it is safer.”

Central and local governments have also begun to take notice of the importance of offering online support for children.

Starting next fiscal year, the education ministry will trial an SNS network to try to support children who are being bullied, while the city of Otsu, Shiga Prefecture, has announced a collaboration with Line Corp. that will allow it to use its messaging app to offer a bullying consultation service that starts on a trial basis in November. The city of Kashiwa, Chiba Prefecture, has also introduced an app called STOPit, an anonymous reporting and management system originally created by a company in the United States.

Meanwhile, several schools in Japan are using private services to prevent bullying and other problems faced by students.

Adish, a private subsidiary of Gaiax Group located in Tokyo’s Shinagawa district, currently offers two specialized services to help schools create safe learning and social environments for students.

Adish first launched School Guardian in 2007, using a system it designed on its own to monitor students’ online posts. Students’ posts are scrutinized for meaning, with teachers monitoring comment threads to find potentially harmful material. The findings are then shared with school managers in the form of a report.

Adish later launched Kids’ Sign in 2015, creating a website on which students can anonymously report any problems they witness or experience.

“Young people today are digital natives,” says Yu Hirata, operational manager of the School Guardian division at Adish. “The proliferation of smartphones now allows more people to access the internet and report any concerns they may have anytime.”

While positive about the potential that such services offer, Hirata is also careful to highlight some obstacles.

“We want to provide transparency,” Hirata says. “We can collect and report the voices of students, but the way in which we follow up on each issue depends on each school.”

Kazuaki Izawa, director of Ijime Kara Kodomo o Mamoro Network, says the key to preventing bullying depends on the manner in which schools take action. However, experts such as Izawa say the absence of penalties in the 2013 anti-bullying legislation prevents teachers from taking true responsibility for cases involving bullying.

“I do understand that bullying won’t be eradicated by introducing penalties in the legislation, but I do believe that teachers simply aren’t trying to stop it,” Izawa says. “I think the consequences that teachers face are too light compared to what is actually going on.”

As an expert on issues related to bullying, Izawa holds lectures at schools nationwide. He also operates a hotline, although most children who are experiencing bullying contact him by email. When bullied children do reach out to him, Izawa takes his time, carefully building a relationship with each child and corresponding dozens of times with the victim before he or she is ready to share contact information.

“The emails usually begin with short phrases such as ‘I want to die’ or ‘Please help me,'” Izawa says. “These children are guarded at first … so I try to build trust through email and create a safe place for them to talk about their problems.”

(Masami Ito contributed to this report)

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