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on Leading the Next Generation


Do Your Students Struggle With Hikikomori?

Have you heard of “Hikikomori”? It’s a phenomenon that we first read about in Japan, but it has spread to other cultures such as Spain, France, Italy, and Latin America. It’s a trend describing socially withdrawn youth. And the trend is spreading.

According to the University of Michigan, “They are modern day hermits—hundreds of thousands of young people who have retreated to their bedrooms. They disdain social contact and are unable to go to school or work for months or even years. In Japanese, it’s called ‘hikikomori,’ [which means] withdrawing, pulling inward.”

Having affected hundreds of thousands of youth, it’s an epidemic.

Alan Teo, a researcher and psychiatrist at the University of Michigan, writes that the term comes from an expert panel of Japanese researchers who define it as “a state of social withdrawal for more than six months.” (Korea uses a shorter duration of three months to define the concept.) Japanese researchers explain that the young people (usually ages 15-32) who struggle with it don’t leave their house except for rare occasions and don’t interact with people outside their own family. As Alan puts it, “Existence is pretty much confined to the home.”

Avoiding Reality

Hikikomori is the avoidance of social interaction, adult situations and responsibility, and it’s usually replaced by spending one’s days surfing online or playing video games. The diagnosis is not limited to, but especially affects males, with some reports stating that nearly 80% of cases come from males. Most importantly, it’s accompanied by some form of distress or functional impairment — the young adult is full of angst and wants to escape. Psychologists are still diagnosing the issue.

While this medical condition is relatively new and remote, it paints a picture of a growing reality across the globe and begs the question: Has the virtual world left too many young people ill-equipped for the real world of responsibility and social intelligence? If so, what is a society to do with these people? “The real heavy lifting may ultimately have to happen on the level of the culture itself,” writes Lev Grossman of Time magazine.

There was a time when people looked forward to taking on the mantle of adulthood. That time is past. Now our culture trains young people to fear it. ‘I don’t ever want a lawn,’ says [twenty-seven-year-old Matt] Swann. ‘I don’t ever want to drive two hours to get to work. I do not want to be a parent. I mean, hell, why would I? There’s so much fun to be had while you’re young.’

Abandonment or Abundance

I think there’s a deeper reason for our predicament. During their childhood and adolescent years, kids often experience something traumatic. They encounter one extreme or the other: abandonment or abundance. Many experience both.

Young people who experience abandonment are thrust into responsible roles too soon. Perhaps because of an alcoholic father, an absent mother, or a self-absorbed caretaker, these children don’t fully form. They are exposed to emotionally traumatic situations and typically don’t respond well. (According to the U.S. Census Bureau, 24 million children in America -- one out of every three -- live in biological father-absent homes.)

The other extreme is abundance. It’s a delightful word—we all love abundance. But when abundance is furnished and young people never learn to manage resources (money, possessions, relationships, or time), their growth can be stunted.

Certainly, every parent wishes to provide for their children abundantly, but a never-ending supply of anything reduces the human ability to interpret, manage, save, give, and spend wisely. Frankly, we become spoiled. Kyle is a young man in this situation. His parents are fearful of losing him. They’re afraid he won’t like or accept them. So Kyle is now in power. He’s completely self-absorbed, and he’s come to expect his parents to do everything. Kyle has feigned a suicide attempt, and he is rude to guests. His parents are ashamed.

Kyle was not abandoned. Quite the opposite: he wasn’t expected to fend for himself at seventeen or eighteen, when he probably should have been. More importantly, there was no plan for giving him responsibility in increasing amounts as he grew up.

These two scenarios remind me of the ancient Hebrew proverb written three thousand years ago. The prayer says, “God, don’t give me too little, or I might be tempted to steal. But, don’t give me too much, or I might think I can get by without you. Give me just enough.”

Sadly, Generation iY suffers from both too little and too much. As a result, they’re in danger of being “not enough” for the demands of their future lives.

These are uncertain times, when educators, parents and employers are navigating new terrain. We must balance the “too much, too little” lifestyle and provide young people with wise doses of resources. Centuries ago, Publilius Syrus wrote, “Anyone can hold the helm when the sea is calm.”

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  1. Paul Limpert on July 22, 2015 at 7:11 am

    As an educator (high school teacher and head coach) I do see the situation you describe, it is sad and demands action. In your post I am not sure I see the action necessary, but having read “Boys Adrift” by Leonard Sax, and other associated books and materials, it is clear that there are many factors at play in this situation that our society needs to address and address now. I can verify that the situation is especially acute in the high school age boys vs girls. In growing numbers boys are checking out and checking into their alternative reality worlds where they have control. I don’t totally blame video games, they were an inevitable consequence of our societies evolution and more toys are on the way, what wee do need to start moving in the right direction are parents and teachers working together to provide opportunities that the boys want to participate in where the social interaction is required and those skills are developed. For boys there has to be a level of competition involved in almost anything worth doing and this is where we as a society have failed them. Competition has been labeled as bad and harmful to a boys self respect, and the opposite is actually the case. I have experienced this and I have seen this and we need to bring it back. Boys don’t need championships what they need are daily opportunities to set themselves apart and shine. Thankfully, it doesn’t really take all that much, studies have shown that boys will generally have an overinflated view of their worth after any level of achievement, they only need to experience a little of it. I can remember this as a football player in high school and college. All it took to make my day was to have 1 or 2 tackles a game that were dramatic and I felt like an all american. The impact these little victories have on a young mans self esteem is dramatic, but more to the post published above, it keeps them socially engaged with each other because they have made a contribution they can be proud of and in some cases, too proud of. I applaud Tim’s efforts to keep our eyes focused on this situation we find ourselves in and I for one am putting in place systems to help those that I can touch. I recently initiated a leadership training program for the boys on the lacrosse team that I head coach. Our program was designed from many readings I have read from Carol Dweck’s mindset where she proposes that we all need to maintain a growth mindset versus the fixed mindset that many of our boys currently have, and I am also using many of the concepts from James Kouzes and Barry Posner’s research and books as well as Tim’s books as well. The bottom line is that we the adults, must take action to save our son’s (and daughters in some cases) from the apathy that has consumed them. We must take action because it is we who have caused it by turning over our parenting to the ever convenient video game consoles. Parents (I have 3 kids) and teachers and coaches must unite to monitor and control what our children are exposed to on a daily basis, but more importantly, we must lead them to the opportunity for achievement on any level so that they will begin to re-engage with each other and with us. Keep rockin on Tim, every little bit helps.

  2. Patricia Goes on July 27, 2015 at 11:07 am

    I am not sure how this program knows exactly my conversations with others but every time I read a post it is exactly the heart of the conversations. Yes, I agree with Paul who has written an inspiring post and Tim Elmore who has explained the concept of Hikikomori. I hope that colleges who are developing new teachers are also reading and learning about this societal trend. I know as a school counselor I will be re-thinking my interactions with my fellow staff well as parents and caring adults in the lives of our young people. Thank you for caring about our world and taking the time to share positive and encouraging thoughts.

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Do Your Students Struggle With Hikikomori?