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Social isolation takes a toll on a rising number of South Korea's young adults

Jesse Zhang for NPR

SEOUL, South Korea — For Kim Ji-yeon, a 31-year-old Seoul resident, the pandemic was a chance to escape isolation.

He had spent much of his 20s at home, shunning people. He lived with his family, but they rarely talked. His only social interactions happened online, with fellow gamers. He thought he needed to change but didn't know where to start.

Then he learned about food delivery on foot. Delivery platforms were expanding options to meet soaring demand during the coronavirus pandemic.

"That's how I started going outside again. It was all contact-free, so I could just drop the food at the door and not see anyone," says Kim, who is now out of reclusion. "It helped a lot that I could do something outside, even though it wasn't anything huge."

A growing number of South Korea's young adults like Kim are isolating themselves from society, raising questions about the state of youths in a country known for cutthroat competition and pressure to conform.

The issue predates the pandemic, and as Kim's case shows, its causes are more complex than social distancing mandates. But the global health crisis did aggravate the problem of social isolation among young people and their mental health.

A pre-pandemic study from 2019 by the government think tank Korea Institute for Health and Social Affairs (KIHASA) estimated about 3% of South Korea's population between ages 19 and 34 suffer from isolation, which the study defined as having no meaningful interaction outside of their cohabiting family and work and no one to seek help from when needed.

A man takes a morning stroll along the rocky coastline of Seogwipo, the second-largest city on Jeju Island, on Feb. 23, 2023.
Anthony Wallace / AFP via Getty Images
AFP via Getty Images
A man takes a morning stroll along the rocky coastline of Seogwipo, the second-largest city on Jeju Island, on Feb. 23, 2023.

This group included people in reclusion — an extreme form of isolation — who shut themselves in their home or their room for years like Kim.

In 2021, the estimate rose to 5%, or 540,000 young Koreans.

Realizing the severity of the situation, the government recently conducted its first nationwide survey on young recluses. Like many countries, South Korea has become increasingly aware that impacts of social isolation not only hurt individuals' mental and physical health but also the country's future.

More than 21,000 people aged 19-39 from across the country, who have experienced isolation or reclusion, completed the online survey. Some 12,000 of the respondents, including 504 that reported they don't even leave their room, were in current danger of isolation, the survey concluded.

The respondents' level of life satisfaction and mental health was significantly lower than their peers.

Repeated disappointment is a factor

Nearly 60% of them self-reported that their physical and mental health is bad. Three out of four respondents said they have had suicidal thoughts, compared to 2.3% of the general youth population in the country.

A quarter of them said their isolated or reclusive state lasted for one to three years, while 6.1% said the period exceeded 10 years. More than 80% said they want to break out of their situation.

The two biggest self-reported reasons for their state were job-related difficulties and personal relations issues.

The recovering recluse Kim experienced both. He says he began withdrawing himself from peers after suffering from severe physical bullying through his teens. After graduating from high school, he applied for jobs but only faced one rejection after another.

"I felt powerless and depressed. My self-confidence dropped with repeated failures, so I couldn't help but stay at home," he says.

Kim Seonga, an associate research fellow at KIHASA who has studied the issue of youth isolation and participated in designing and analyzing the government survey, says many young Koreans who experience repeated disappointments in their transition to adulthood report feeling like their existence in society is denied.

"Many seem to think they were not given a role in this society, that they have nowhere to be," she says.

Isolation knows no borders, but cultural pressures are distinct

Japan noticed a similar phenomenon of young hermits decades earlier than South Korea and termed them "hikikomori," which means "withdrawn to oneself." But Kim says South Korea's isolated youths are more comparable in sentiment to the nihilistic pessimism of doomerism or China's tang pingmeaning "lying flat" — in that overwhelmed young people are simply giving up trying.

In that sense, she adds, citing anecdotal accounts she has heard from fellow researchers in other countries, South Korea's case may be a part of a broader, possibly global youth phenomenon that is yet to be clearly recognized, let alone named.

Researchers outside Asia, including in the United States, Canada and Europe, have reported cases of extreme social withdrawal akin to hikikomori.

Other experts, however, attribute the problem to social and cultural conditions specific to South Korea and its neighboring regions.

Lee Eunae, the chief director of Seed:s, a civic organization that has provided counseling to more than 1,000 recluses and runs a facility for their gatherings, says young people in countries with family-centered culture and economic prosperity are more likely to experience isolation and reclusion.

"Parents give everything to their children to ensure them opportunities, and they also expect a lot from their children," she says. "They believe their children must inherit the wealth and social status that they have achieved."

Psychology professor Kim Hyewon of Hoseo University, who specializes in teenagers and young adults and runs recovery programs for recluses at the civic organization PIE for Youth, says such pressure comes also from outside the family in collectivist societies that frown upon people diverging from a standardized way of life.

People sit near the cherry blossoms in full bloom along a street in Seoul on April 3, 2023.
Anthony Wallace / AFP via Getty Images
AFP via Getty Images
People sit near the cherry blossoms in full bloom along a street in Seoul on April 3, 2023.

"They try to fit themselves in," she says, to their society's conventional life stages of getting a job in their 20s, a spouse in their 30s, and then children in their 40s — until the pressure becomes too much.

When they fall out of the path, "the sense of frustration, hurt and shame from feeling useless in this society supersedes their desire for relationships," she says.

But the adulthood tasks have become increasingly difficult to fulfill for the younger generations. South Korea's economic growth rate hovered around 10% in the 1980s, when the parents' generation of baby boomers came of age. The country's gross domestic product increased by 1.4% last year, according to the Bank of Korea.

Competition for stable jobs is fierce, as the labor market becomes more and more polarized and the quality of jobs sinks. Among advanced economies, South Korea has the shortest average job tenure, fourth-longest working hours and second-highest rate of temporary employment.

Seed:s director Lee says in both South Korea and Japan, "There is the mainstream generation that experienced success, and their children's generation is now experiencing this problem of reclusion."

"The older generation demands the standards, concept, and method of success that they experienced, but working hard alone no longer guarantees comfort in South Korea," she says.

This generational gap in expectations confused a middle school teacher surnamed Kim, whose 21-year-old son spent three teenage years cooped up in his room. Kim wanted to be identified only by her surname for fear of harm to her son's future.

Her son started skipping classes in his last year of middle school, saying he couldn't see why he should be in school when he wanted to be a musician. He then hid himself in his room.

"Parents tend to have this strong, stiff idea that their children should at least attend school and belong in an institution," says Kim. "I cried every day, because I couldn't understand my son."

She tried "everything I could," taking him to psychotherapy, a mental health clinic and an alternative school, to no avail. What eventually pulled him out of his reclusion was doing what he had always wanted — studying music.

Money problems cornered him

While middle-class and affluent families may have clashes over inheritance, a lack of financial or social assets to inherit creates a different group of young recluses.

Oh Dong-yeop, 27, spent the past seven years in isolation. He was a diligent enough student to win a scholarship to study computer science at a college, but unable to receive any help from his family, he also had to earn a living through part-time jobs. By his junior year, the double burden overtaxed him, and he lost his scholarship.

He moved to Seoul to save money for his studies and worked construction and logistics jobs. But struggles with financial security wore him down and cornered him into isolation. He ended up depleting his savings, drinking and watching online videos day after day.

"I kept thinking, 'I shouldn't be living like this,' " Oh says. "Then I would wake up the next day, forget about that thought, waste the day, and think again at night, 'I should straighten up from tomorrow.' "

"Young people from underprivileged backgrounds find they have too few professional choices in the society," says the Seed:s director Lee. "Having lived a disadvantaged life from their childhood, they find it difficult to form meaningful relationships and have confidence in themselves."

But until recently, the government didn't consider young recluses like Oh as a welfare policy target.

When Oh eventually felt like he hit a wall, with not even a penny in his hands, he went to a local administrative office. His vague yet desperate expectation of help was quickly dashed. "They told me they don't have much to offer because I'm young and able-bodied," he says.

"Public support for isolated middle-aged or elderly people may not be sufficient but exists," says the KIHASA researcher Kim Seonga. "But when it comes to youths, it has been a blank."

Changes began only recently as more young Koreans, including those secluded in their home, started voicing their hardships and seeking help. Some are creating YouTube videos about their reclusion or poverty, while others are applying for support programs run by civic groups or local governments.

Additionally, the marked deterioration of youth mental health in the past few years alarmed public health authorities. The suicide rate of Korean 20-somethings jumped from 16.4 per 100,000 in 2017 to 23.5 in 2021, according to the government statistics agency.

Experts say early intervention is crucial in helping young recluses, as their state can easily become permanent if the "golden time" of relative malleability is missed.

In Japan, the "8050" problem of parents in their 80s taking care of their long-reclusive children now in their 50s has emerged as a social issue.

The longer recluses stay isolated, the more likely they are to develop physical and mental health problems. A 2022 survey by the Seoul metropolitan government on over 5,000 isolated or reclusive youths in the city found that 8 out of 10 are experiencing some degree of depression and 18.5% of them are taking psychiatric drugs, compared to 8.6% of their peers.

Experts say the medical costs and missed opportunities can weigh down not only the individuals, but the whole nation.

Researcher Kim Seonga says they can incur social welfare costs on the rest of the society, especially as they age and lose family support. They are also unlikely to get married and have children, bringing South Korea's low birth rate even further down and consequently the country's productivity.

For these reasons, Kim says, "This can become a problem not just for the current youth generation but for our country's next 20, 30, 40, 50 years."

Korea Youth Foundation, an organization in Seoul, estimated last year that the annual costs of lost economic output, welfare services and health-related expenses of isolated youth can exceed $5.6 billion.

A woman visits the I-Link Town observatory as skylines of Tokyo and Ichikawa are seen during the evening hour in Ichikawa, a city in Japan's Chiba prefecture, east of Tokyo, on June 7, 2023. Japan has a phenomenon known as "<em>hikikomori</em>," which means "withdrawn to oneself."
Philip Fong / AFP via Getty Images
AFP via Getty Images
A woman visits the I-Link Town observatory as skylines of Tokyo and Ichikawa are seen during the evening hour in Ichikawa, a city in Japan's Chiba prefecture, east of Tokyo, on June 7, 2023. Japan has a phenomenon known as "hikikomori," which means "withdrawn to oneself."

In December, along with the survey results, the South Korean government announced a set of measures to help the youths' recovery, such as opening a hotline, setting up support centers in four municipalities and providing tailored rehabilitation programs.

While welcoming the move, psychology professor Kim Hyewon says the policies require further elaboration on who will receive the services for how long and from whom.

She also calls for sensitivity and attentiveness in developing concrete details, as isolated or reclusive people are not used to demanding what they need.

Researcher Kim Seonga says more support centers need to be established, in smaller towns and wards nationwide.

Some major cities like Seoul and Gwangju launched their own support plans in the past few years, through which hundreds of people, including the former recluses that spoke to NPR, have received help. But awareness of the issue is still limited in remote regions.

Pointing out that the measures are currently in a pilot stage, Kim also calls for sufficient funding and legal basis to ensure their stability.

Seed:s' Lee Eunae agrees that a long-term perspective is necessary, as well as a holistic, patient approach.

She also thinks intergenerational, society-wide conversations about what makes a happy, successful life need to take place to fundamentally solve the problem.

"I keep working on this issue out of the belief that this can be an opportunity for the Korean society to reach a fresh agreement on the need for huge changes," she says.

Such self-reflection is what the middle school teacher and mother Kim arrived at after her son's reclusion.

"I am a teacher myself, but looking at parents pushing their children to their limit, I have doubts about the future of our education," she says. "I too would feel depressed if I were a young person."

"I once thought of dropping out of school as falling into hell," says Kim, "but my son seems to be doing just fine now, regardless of what his parents think."

If you or someone you know may be considering suicide, in the United States: Contact the 988 Suicide & Crisis Lifeline by dialing 9-8-8, or the Crisis Text Line by texting HOME to 741741.

In South Korea: Visit this website for hotlines and support.

Internationally: Visit this website to find a hotline near you.

Copyright 2024 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

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