Adolescents locked up at home, who are the Italian ‘hikikomori’?

A study conducted by the Cnr-Ifc investigates the phenomenon: there are almost 54 thousand

There are about 54,000 young Italian ‘hikikomori’or those guys who have decided to withdrawing from social and school life to the point of not leaving the house for long periods, limiting relations with the outside world to a minimum and maintaining contacts mainly through the Internet. A phenomenon that emerged in Japan, the country from which the term ‘hikikomori’ derives, and studied mainly in that context, but which in 2021 was also the subject of an investigation in Italy. The research, promoted by the Abele Group in collaboration with the Università della Strada, was carried out by the Institute of Clinical Physiology of the National Research Council of Pisa (Cnr-Ifc) with the aim of providing a quantitative estimate of thevoluntary isolation in the adolescent population.

The Cnr-Ifc survey

The survey involved over 12,000 students between the ages of 15 and 19 who self-assessed themselves using a specific questionnaire. 2.1% of the sample recognized themselves as hikikomori, a percentage that allowed us to estimate 54 thousand Italian boys who identify themselves in a situation of social withdrawal.

A figure that “appears to be confirmed by the responses on effective withdrawal periods – he explains Sabrina Molinaro, researcher at the CnrIfc – : 18.7% of the interviewees affirm, in fact, that they have not gone out for a significant amount of time, excluding periods of lockdown, and of these, 8.2% did not leave for a period of 1 to 6 months and beyond: this area includes both the most serious situations (over 6 months of closure) and those at higher risk (3 to 6 months). The projections tell us about 1.7% of the total students (44,000 young people nationwide) who can be defined as hikikomori, while 2.6% (67,000) would be at serious risk of becoming one”, and finally 3, 9%, i.e. over 100,000 students, at lower risk.

Another significant fact that emerges from the research is 6% of students who report not having bonded with any of their peers, together with 5.6% – about 145,000 students – who say they never leave the house or their room except to go to school.

Age most at risk and gender differences

Among those who have implemented voluntary isolation for a period of 6 months or more – excluding periods of lockdown -, no age group distinctions were found: the percentage is in fact equal to 1.8% both among 15-17 year-olds and 18-19 year-olds. However, a difference emerges in terms of perception: among students who identify with the description of hikikomori there is a prevalence of 2.7% among 15-17 year olds and 1.5% among 18-19 year olds.

The age most at risk for choosing to withdraw is therefore the one that goes from 15 to 17 years, a fact that suggests that the motivations for self-excluding behavior have their origins already in the middle school period. For the group of 18-19 years, however, the data indicates that the risk of isolation decreases, but that for a minority it continues in more persistent and serious ways, leading to a higher risk of developing an adult hikikomori status.

As for gender differences, males are the majority among the effective withdrawals with the following percentages: for a period of isolation of 6 months or more they are 2.1% compared to 1.4% of girls; from 3 to 6 months they are 2.8% against 2.5% of girls; from 1 month to 3 they are 4.1% against 3.7% of girls. However, females are more easily given the definition of hikikomori: 2.5% of cases compared to 1.7% of males. Behaviors are also very different: girls are more inclined to sleep (+20.6% compared to boys), to reading (+8.1% compared to boys) and to TV (+10.4% compared to boys), While males are particularly dedicated to online gaming (59.8% compared to 18.5% of females).

The causes of social withdrawal

What drives these kids to choose to isolate themselves from the world? The causes are many but first of all it is the sense of inadequacy with respect to peers and fatigue in interpersonal relationships, characterized by frustration and self-devaluation. In fact, 1.4% of students feel constantly derided or judged negatively and 0.4% report having suffered acts of bullying. Behaviors, shyness, academic performance, hobbies and physical appearance are targeted. In the latter case, in particular the way of dressing (27%) and the weight (18%).

The picture that emerges is also interesting in terms of the reasons for dropping out of schoolno longer referable only to the traditional indicators of abandonment and dispersion, but which they see come into play deep relational suffering, serious personal inadequacy and unsustainability of one’s exposure to school.

The reaction of adults

“Another partially surprising data concerns the reaction of families: more than one interviewee out of 4, among those who define themselves withdrawn, in fact declares that the parents would have accepted it seemingly without question. The data is similar when it comes to teachers ”, he underlines Sonia Cerrai of the Cnr-Ifc.

The answers of the children to the questionnaire show in fact from the parents neglect (19.2%), misunderstanding (26%) and punishments (6.1%). Only 14.8% of young people report a reaction of concern by the caregivers. Things are not better as regards teachers: for children, teachers are not worried (27%) or think that the absence is due to illness (23.1%), and only slightly more than a fifth is worried (21 %).

A result that highlights the still persistent underestimation of the phenomenon not only in society, but also among family members and the school, who are directly involved.

The study, despite some limitations (the subjectivity of the self-assessment and the time period of the study, close to the lockdowns), therefore reflects the need for collaboration between schools, families and public and private social-health services to intercept the phenomenon early, in particular during the first two years of high school, when it is easier for relational malaise, a sense of isolation and the temptation to self-defense to take hold.