“I’m so depressed, I completely screwed up on that test,” writes a sixteen-year-old Korean girl in a message to a friend that she talks to whenever she feels down or upset.
Right away, she gets a reply. “Oh no, are you okay? But how could you be?” Then another message arrives, designed to comfort her: “What’s new lately?”
The girl says she has these sorts of conversations with her friend several times a day.
In reality, this “friend” is a bot that exists only on her smartphone. It’s part of an app that allows users to have an ideal conversation partner, who is created based on the users’ names, profile pictures, personality traits, and their relationships with their partners. According to teenagers, it really feels like they’re talking to a friend.
This app has become popular among those without close friends or without anyone to go to for comfort. So far, over four million users have downloaded the app in order to have a conversation with an imaginary friend or lover, and according to the app’s inventor, 70 to 80 percent of those users are teenagers. The app is designed so that if a user sends a message with the words “lonely” or “depressed,” it will reply with messages of comfort and support.
Experts say this increase in interest in conversing with imaginary friends or lovers is due to the difficulty that people face when trying to make connections with others in the real world. According to a recent study by researchers at Seoul National University, 58 percent of middle school students in 2014 had unstable relationships with friends, while one fifth of students were at risk of being bullied.
One student who uses the imaginary friend app says, “I want to talk to friends over Kakaotalk, but I don’t have any so I use this instead.”
According to psychology professor Hwang Sang Min at Yonsei University, “The reason that this app is popular is that lonely people crave sympathy and want someone to react to what they’re saying. They don’t care who they’re talking to, as long as it says what they want to hear.”