“Some students just enjoy having no social life”

“Some students just enjoy having no social life”

Hikikomori: a Japanese phenomenon spreading to Dutch youth

13-02-2023 · Background

Young people who isolate themselves in their rooms and withdraw completely from society – it’s a well-documented phenomenon in Japan. According to psychologist Peter Muris, the condition is on the rise in the Netherlands as well. “The covid pandemic has certainly played a role in this.”

More and more of them have been showing up in his office in recent years, says Muris – secondary-school students as well as university students who are “hikikomori”, Japanese for extreme social withdrawal (the term is used for both the phenomenon and the people affected by it). “They rarely leave their rooms and rarely or never meet up with friends anymore. Some no longer even have direct contact with their parents. They no longer participate in society.”

Take David (not his real name), a bachelor’s student at Maastricht University, who found himself completely stuck in the third year of his studies while writing his thesis. He is one of the young people who Muris treats at the Maastricht mental healthcare facility Youz, where he works as a youth psychologist one day per week in addition to his professorship at the Faculty of Psychology and Neuroscience (FPN).

“David had already made some good progress on his thesis, but he kept doubting the scientific value of his research. His supervisor assured him that it was fine; it’s more about demonstrating skills than the research results themselves. But David’s doubts remained, and he began to avoid working on his thesis. Instead, he began gaming more, mostly at night, which meant he spent a lot of time in bed during the day. This, in turn, caused friction between him and his parents, with whom he lives. He found himself on a slippery slope, increasingly isolating himself in his room and having less social contact. It has now been almost a year since he last worked on his studies.”

Protective parents

Cases like David’s prompted Muris to delve into the literature on hikikomori. “A lot has been written about it in Japan, but it’s been receiving increasing attention in other countries. I thought it was time for a literature study on the causes and treatments.” Muris and an American colleague published their study last month in the scientific journal Clinical Child and Family Psychology Review.

What did they find about the phenomenon? “First of all, it occurs almost exclusively in wealthy countries. It’s almost impossible to be hikikomori without financial support. That’s one of the reasons why it is so common in Japan, where caring for family is considered extremely important. But we’ve been seeing more protective, coddling parents in Western countries, too. They want to solve all their children’s problems themselves. This results in young people who are more dependent, less resistant to stress, and have a hard time dealing with adversity.”

At the same time, it’s the parents who often cause stress. “They find it very important that their child goes to university. We regularly see young people who are under enormous pressure because their parents push them to pursue higher education, which is beyond their capabilities or not what they want. This may eventually result in them dropping out.”

Lockdowns

The phenomenon is more common in males and young people who live with their parents. Some, but not all, have an autism spectrum disorder or social anxiety. Hikikomori occurs in varying degrees: some still have a part-time job or occasionally meet up with friends, whereas others never leave their rooms. Muris doesn’t have the exact figures, but he estimates that one per cent of Dutch youth are hikikomori. “This doesn’t include young people with depression. Depression also causes social withdrawal, but hikikomori doesn’t necessarily come with feelings of sadness. In fact, a lot of these young people don’t see their withdrawal as a negative thing. They enjoy their lives as they are.”

This was confirmed when Muris’s study recently appeared on the online forum Reddit. “The post had about 4,000 comments within three days, mostly positive replies from young people who identified with it and wrote about their own experiences. They aren’t ashamed of their lifestyle. They feel that society is too hectic, for example, or feel little need for social contact.” For many, the covid pandemic played a role in reinforcing this pattern of behaviour. “Not just due to increased anxiety about being around people, but also because the lockdowns made it clear that you don’t have to leave the house for a lot of things. Ordering food, shopping, making money gambling or investing – you can do it all online.”

World around them

Why offer these young people support if they enjoy their lifestyle? “In Japan, we’ve seen that it becomes problematic in the long run. An estimated one million people in Japan have shut themselves in their rooms. It has attracted the attention of the government, as it affects the labour market.” There’s also the “8050 problem” – people who, at the age of 50, are still completely dependent on their now 80-year-old parents. “Cases have been reported of parents passing away and adult ‘children’ emerging, barely capable of taking care of themselves.” In other words, the situation can’t last forever; at some point, hikikomori will have to participate in society.

How do you help hikikomori come out of their shells? “Ultimately, the motivation must come from within. If they truly don’t want to change, that’s it. But many hikikomori do feel a nagging sense of unease somewhere deep down. For example, they see their friends get ahead in life – get a degree, find a job, buy a house.” Muris saw this happen with David, the UM student he treats. “Although he would rather not leave his current lifestyle behind, he also wants to regain control of his life. As a psychologist, I look for that nagging feeling and try to fan the flame.”

But getting treatment from a psychologist or psychiatrist isn’t the only possible solution. “If someone’s main problem is that they can’t find a job, a job coach may be able to help them. And sometimes we actually have to talk to the parents enabling their hikikomori child by providing them with food, a nice computer, a warm room. It’s OK to give your child a proverbial kick up the backside sometimes. For example, let them contribute financially to the household from a certain age. And if they tell you they’re planning to take yet another gap year, give them a choice: either work or study.”

Does Muris have any tips for students who have noticed one of their roommates or fellow students slide into self-isolation? “Ask them to grab a cup of coffee with you. And try not to ignore people who are quiet in class. It’s important that they continue to feel involved in the world around them.”
 

On 9 March, Stichting LEFteam will hold a mini symposium on hikikomori in Maastricht, with Peter Muris as one of the speakers. Students, parents and teachers are welcome, but availability is limited.

Image: Shutterstock

Categories: Science
Tags: hikikomori,social withdrawal,isolation,pressure,stress,psychology,students,instagram

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