Hikikomori risk factors linked to social withdrawal tendencies among young adults in Singapore
Individuals who feel like they do not fit in — because of depression, supressing emotions, or more — may be more likely to withdraw from society.
Coined by psychologist Tamaki Saitō in 1998 to describe the rising occurrence of emerging adults voluntarily going into seclusion, hikikomori is a social phenomenon that started with young Japanese men around the mid-1980s to 1990s. More notably, hikikomori are characterised as being physically isolated at home for 3–6 months or more, showcasing psychological detachment from the world, and experiencing distress due to impairment of their daily functioning (for example, daily tasks, such as buying food, are avoided to avoid interactions with others).
This phenomenon has been growing across several countries, particularly in East Asia. In China, Hong Kong, and Singapore, hikikomori are referred to as “hidden youth,” and in South Korea, “socially withdrawn youth”.
Dr Patrick Lin, Senior Lecturer of Psychology at James Cook University in Singapore — in collaboration with various other expert researchers in the field — sought to explore the hikikomori phenomenon in Singapore.
“The need to conduct focal research on hikikomori is further exacerbated by studies considering individuals displaying hikikomori-linked features as having avoidant personality disorder, social anxiety disorder, agoraphobia, or depression,” says Dr Lin. “While it is important not to blur these concepts together as their outcomes and associated coping mechanisms would be different, it remains unclear where the line is between such disorders and hikikomori-linked features. Considering these circumstances, we conceptually separate hikikomori into two distinct aspects — hikikomori risk factors and social withdrawal tendencies.”
Hikikomori risk factors reflect economic factors and societal values — such as beliefs or views about the self and society, access to social support — to create a feeling of exclusion, thus increasing the likelihood of withdrawal. Dr Lin explains, “In other words, risk factors relate to the context and affordances of the situation that makes social withdrawal seem favourable to the individual, who might then start to display social withdrawal tendencies.”
He adds, “For example, an individual with strong hikikomori risk factors may show up for work regularly, but feel like they do not fit in with society and still desire to withdraw despite not being able to.”
This distinction is crucial for examining the hikikomori phenomenon in a Singaporean context, since the local culture and social structure has particular nuances that may impact hikikomori-linked behaviour. For example, Singapore has small land area, and many factors contribute to a high difficulty in moving out, which may lead to high hikikomori risk factors without social withdrawal tendencies.
The study concluded that individuals with higher hikikomori risk factors indeed had higher social withdrawal tendencies. Moreover, hikikomori risk factors may lead to social withdrawal tendencies, along with higher levels of depression and anxiety. In fact, the study revealed that the higher the withdrawal tendencies, the stronger the relationship between depression and hikikomori risk factors.
In addition, lower connection and engagement with friends can also be observed in individuals with high hikikomori risk factors. However, connections to family members did not contribute to the relationship between hikikomori risk factors and social withdrawal tendencies. One of the explanations could be due to the societal and cultural situation in Singapore, where parents feel the need to provide for their children (even when they are emerging adults). Additionally, individuals in Singapore below the age of 35 are not allowed to own any public housing, resulting in most young adults staying with their parents by default. These individuals may even share rooms with siblings, and therefore become unable to avoid family interactions.
What’s more, individuals with high hikikomori risk factors might be suppressing their emotional expressions, perhaps, during situations where they feel isolated, depressed, anxious, or disconnected from others, to appear functional in society. For a collectivistic society like Singapore, this might be a way for them to conform and not “stand out” from the crowd. That said, frequent emotion suppression is linked to low authenticity and reduced wellbeing, which may inspire more pronounced social withdrawal tendencies.
Lin PKF, Andrew, Koh AHQ and Liew K (2022) The relationship between Hikikomori risk factors and social withdrawal tendencies among emerging adults—An exploratory study of Hikikomori in Singapore. Front. Psychiatry 13:1065304. doi: 10.3389/fpsyt.2022.1065304
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