By first year of middle school, students’ happiness plummets

Posted on : 2016-08-08 18:27 KST Modified on : 2019-10-19 20:29 KST
As early as middle school, kids start to worry about finding a job in the future, and have little free time due to competition
International comparison of children’s happiness levels. Data: Save the Children and the Seoul National University Institute of Social Welfare
International comparison of children’s happiness levels. Data: Save the Children and the Seoul National University Institute of Social Welfare

Jang, a 14-year-old middle school student, is busy all day long. Once public school lets out at 4 pm, he goes to private academies for math or history. On Sundays, he has two hours of English tutoring, followed by two hours of music lessons. He does spend time reading, exercising, and doing other activities, but he’s already worried about his future.

“Whenever I think about the future, I get this vague sense of worry,” he told the Hankyoreh in an interview. “I see on the TV or online about how jobs are decreasing, and it makes me worried about what kind of job I’ll get or how I’m going to live.”

New research findings show that the happiness levels of South Korean children in the third grade and up plummet to international lows once they reach the first year of middle school - and that the biggest reasons are a lack of free time and fears for the future.

The international relief and development group Save the Children and the Seoul National University Institute of Social Welfare released findings on Aug. 7 from a comparative study last year of happiness levels for children around the world. In the category of subjectively reported happiness, South Korean children ranked among the lowest for the 42,567 examined in twelve countries in Europe, South America, and Africa.

A particularly striking finding was the sharp drop in happiness levels between elementary and middle school students. When asked how happy they had felt over the previous two weeks, South Korean third and fifth graders gave an average rating of 8.2 points out of ten; for middle schoolers, the rating dropped to 7.4. South Korean children accounted for the lowest levels compared to the twelve-country averages of 8.9 for third graders, 8.7 for fifth graders, and 8.2 for first-year middle school students, as well as the largest difference between elementary and middle school students (8.2 to 7.4).

“The decrease in children’s happiness as they get older is a global trend, but only in South Korea does the happiness level drop so sharply when they enter middle school,” said Gachon University social welfare professor Ahn Jae-jin, who led the study.

To identify the reasons, the research term conducted focus group interviews in February for 46 first- and second-year middle school students in six regions of South Korea. Titled “Why does happiness decrease when children become middle school students?: Happiness and its changes as seen by middle schoolers,” it asked participants about topics such as their personal views on happiness, their own changes in happiness since entering middle school and the reasons, and their predictions for their future happiness as adults.

In their responses, children mentioned “freedom,” “leisure,” “human relationships,” and “use of time” as conditions for happiness. Keywords for changes after entering middle school included “lack of time,” “lots of controls,” and “less time to spend with family.” Just one out of the 46 children interviewed gave a positive response on use of time as a middle school student, citing a “structured life.”

“When you’re elementary school student, you don’t have all that much to do, so you can just do what you feel,” said a Daegu second-year middle school student identified by the initial K. “Once you’re in middle school, you have stuff to do, and you have no time because you have to finish it all.”

When asked whether they thought they would happier as adults, many students expressed fears about finding work and supporting a family.

“I get tense whenever I think about the future,” said a first-year middle school student in Gyeonggi Province. “They say it’s going to be really tough finding a job once it’s our turn. It‘s looking like it’s going to be a big problem.”

Another first-year student in Gangwon Province said, “There are good jobs and bad jobs, and I‘m afraid I could end up depressed if my grades drop and I wind up at a bad job.”

According to Ahn, students complained about “future fears like heavy competition and finding a job beyond the lack of freedom in use of their time due to an increased school load.”

“The low levels of happiness among South Korean middle school students are related to issues across society,” Ahn said.

By Kim Mee-hyang, staff reporter

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