The Social Isolation of the Hikikomori: Voluntarily Imprisoned and Glued to the Screens

The Social Isolation of the Hikikomori: Voluntarily Imprisoned and Glued to the Screens

There has been an alarming rise in the hikikomori. Originating in Japan, it is a social phenomenon through which sociability is almost completely annulled and, with it, life in relation to others. The hikikomori, in great majority adolescent males, decide voluntarily to alienate themselves and are characterized by a desire to escape reality: they choose to retire completely from social life. Sherry Turkle had already warned of the danger of the paradoxical isolation that social media produces, but this is qualitatively different, it is pathological.

The hikikomori isolate themselves is a room in which they create their own space and the screens of their digital devices are their only relation with the outside world or with others like them. They even come to forget about themselves and about their own appearance, they invert their circadian rhythm and avoid going outside, as well as avoiding the members of their families. Their withdrawal can last from six months to up to several years. Their only concern is to express themselves through the internet. It stands out that in their rooms they end up accumulating great quantities of objects and scraps of food.

The first indications and signs of alarm due to the consequences of this social phenomenon appeared in the 1990’s, although scholars, led by Tamaki Saito, date the beginning of the phenomenon in the 1980’s. Their status is the result of a personal decision but is explained, and also conditioned by, the social medium in which they live. In the case of the Japanese, their socio-economical and family context influence the phenomenon: according to the latest data of the office of official statistics of Japan , the unemployment rate is 3.4 per cent, but there is a high level of aging and a very low birth rate. In the country there is also found a particular family context and great social pressure to succeed.

It is estimated that the problem affects a million people in Japan alone. And this extreme form of isolation, which is a real illness, has spread to other countries, such as the United States, Spain, and Italy, although in these cases the manifestation of the phenomenon has different nuances, since the social and family structures are different from those in Japan.

The phenomenon of the hikikomori provides food for thought about the consequences of isolation, when it profoundly affects development. “Physical” social contact is fundamental for the person and his growth. One can imagine, for example, the changes in mentality that could occur, the loss of social skills and moral reference points. These last, for the hikikomori, are substituted with the Internet, television or videogames, which become their only frame of reference and their only way of communicating with their peers. This social phenomenon—an authentic social pathology--, still infrequent in European countries, must raise our awareness of the devastating consequences that the accentuation of indifference and individualism can have over families and, by extension, over society as a whole.

Are digital media a Petri dish in which this phenomenon can develop? Aristotle reminds us that the virtue is in moderation. Used well, screens are useful tools, but using them excessively or exclusively as a means of communication is, without doubt, a risk factor that can generate anomalous phenomena like that of the hikikomori.