I first heard about them well over a decade ago, young Japanese who have become hermits, so awkward socially that they refuse to come out of the bedrooms in their parents’ homes for years at a time. Meals are left outside the door to be taken in when they are sure there is no-one outside. The rest of their existence is lived in a small space confined by four walls. Their only contact with the outside world is a form of virtual reality lived through social media and gaming. In creating that reality, they have created their own prisons. The longer they stay, the more difficult it becomes to try to free them.
I always assumed this was a phenomenon confined to the Japanese, a form of rebellion against the strict societal norms and rigid conformity required of many young adults in that country. A page on today’s BBC website shows that this is far from confined merely to a small number in Japan. It is spreading quite fast. One study estimates there are 541,000 of these hikikomori in Japan – 1.57% of the population. A similar 2014 survey in Hong Kong found a higher percentage – 1.9%. The problem has now spread to Europe. A year ago the UK appointed its first Minister for Loneliness after finding that nearly 10% of those between 16 and 24 reported feeling “always or often” lonely.
A controversial but common theme in hikikomori research is the isolating influence of modern technology. Any potential links are far from settled, but there’s concern Japan’s lost generation could be a canary in the coal mine for our increasingly disconnected societies . . .
Living up to the expectations of Japanese society has also got harder. Economic stagnation and globalisation is bringing Japan’s collectivist and hierarchical traditions into conflict with a more individualistic and competitive Western worldview, says Kato [Takahiro Kato, an associate professor of psychiatry at Kyushu University in Fukuoka, who both studies and treats hikikomori]. And while British parents might give short shrift to a child refusing to leave their room, Japanese parents feel a strong obligation to support children no matter what and shame often prevents them from seeking help, says Kato.
. . . the increasing number of cases outside Japan is leading people to question the culture-bound nature of the condition. In a 2015 study, Kato and collaborators in the US, South Korea and India found cases matching the clinical criteria in all four countries.
The role of the internet, social media and video games has resulted in considerable debate as it has in many areas of mental health research. While new technology does not affect most people in a similar way as the hikikomori, it certainly affects others, helping to make their isolation more rigid and severe.
The effect of technology could also be more subtle, says Kato. Computer games have rewritten the nature of play, he says, with children spending ever more time in controlled virtual environments rather than the unpredictable real world. At the same time the internet, smartphones and social media have made indirect rather than face-to-face contact much more common.
“Now society has no risk, no direct communication,” says Kato. “It’s easy to hit the reset button and reverse and there's low experience of failure.” He thinks that’s detrimental to children’s development, making them less resilient and less adept at interpersonal relationships. Just like you need to be exposed to dirt to develop immunity to diseases you need to be exposed to risk and failure to develop resilience and independence, he adds.
The experts quoted seem to agree that technology can and should better harnessed to reach these hikikomori around the world. In Japan a robot is being developed to reintroduce them to social contact in a controllable way. Dogs are similarly being used in Hong Kong. Coaching and teaching parents to encourage their children to develop self-esteem and how they might be able to re-enter society is also being researched.
http://www.bbc.com/future/story/2019012 ... rn-hermits
I'm glad all my evenings down the pub were not totally wasted!