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The Hikikomori Phenomenon – is Information Technology really to blame?

Jan Ondrus, Associate Professor of Information Systems and Associate Dean of Faculty at ESSEC Asia-Pacific, shares initial research into the Hikikomori phenomenon — the gradual withdrawal into the virtual world and behavioural extremes — and the influence of IT

Published: Aug 31, 2023 12:32:49 PM IST
Updated: Aug 31, 2023 02:13:18 PM IST

Previous studies have shown that Hikikomoris tend to use the internet extensively and it has been recognised as one of the key catalysts for its development.
Image: ShutterstockPrevious studies have shown that Hikikomoris tend to use the internet extensively and it has been recognised as one of the key catalysts for its development. Image: Shutterstock

Not-so-splendid isolation

Experiencing lockdown during the worst days of the COVID-19 pandemic, many of us might, on at least one occasion, have faced a strange sense of splendid isolation – sometimes even utter loneliness as the mandatory month or two passed by.

But imagine such isolation – self-imposed, this time – for stretches of at least 6 months at a time. And with the passing of days, weeks and months, gradually withdrawing into the confines of a single room. In touch through connected devices, yet with friends becoming first virtual meet ups, then one by one artificial in the form of identities and characters created in a video game. Science fiction? Not really. This is the world of the Hikikomori, a phenomenon of our modern, digitalised society that now afflicts more than an estimated 2 million people throughout the world.

Is IT to blame?

Originating in Japan, the term relates to an affliction – an extreme form of pathological withdrawal or social isolation – above all characterised by physical isolation in one’s home. We might immediately imagine a teenager engrossed in on online game, but the phenomenon also touches the adult world. In 2019, a Japanese government survey revealed that over half a million recluses existed in the 15-35 age bracket. A further survey in 2015 showed that just over 600 thousand adults – aged between 40 and 64 – also fell into the category dubbed “adult Hikikomori” (Wikipedia). And the disorder is not only Japanese, but international – recognised as existing in most digitally connected countries in the world including the USA, China, South Korea and the countries of Europe.

Other addictions indeed exist – internet addiction or online gaming, for example – but Hikikomori is different in that on a diagnostic level it is the long-term isolation and recoil from socialization that significantly characterise it. Many have pointed to information technology being a root cause of this illness. But is that so?

For Prof. Jan Ondrus at ESSEC Business School Asia-Pacific and his fellow researchers, the question is more nuanced. On the one hand, IT has the potential to bring vast numbers of people together in virtual socialization. On the other, it also inhibits physical – some may say real – socialization. There is no doubt that digital technologies have influenced the appearance of the Hikikomori disorder, though Prof. Ondrus sees a chink in the argument. For him, whereas research has focused on the antecedents, consequences and treatment of the affliction, little has been done to explore how – or to what extent – the mechanisms of IT can cause someone to become a Hikikomori. After all, not all of us who have access to the internet necessarily do.

What we know about Hikikomori

Previous studies have shown that Hikikomoris tend to use the internet extensively and it has been recognised as one of the key catalysts for its development. School truancy is one consequence, not holding down a job another. Sufferers are a solitary lot, rarely having groups of friends and subject to loneliness – spending upwards of 12 hours a day on the computer – as well as a lack of ability to express their emotions which may end up in extremes of physical violence towards family members.
The Hikikomori Phenomenon – is IT really to blame? Prof. Jan Ondrus at ESSEC Asia-Pacific, shares research into the Hikikomori phenomenon – the gradual withdrawal into the virtual world and behavioural extremes – and the influence of IT.

Therapy has focused around family support groups, counselling either over the phone or face-to-face, and art therapy. It is interesting to note that the Pokemon GO mobile app game has even been tried as a means to help those afflicted to socialize, though trials proved disappointing – users ending up staring into their own screens despite being physically in the same room. And although face-to-face therapy coupled with home visits seems to be a preference, there is no consensus among medical experts on which treatments are most effective.

Also read: 6 strategies to combat workplace loneliness

Exploring the impact of IT

Profs. Ondrus, Kato, Barney Tan, Felix Tan and researcher Ha Eun Park bring our attention to research factors they call IT affordances and IT constraints. Basically, IT offers an environment and tools that enable users with positive opportunities – IT affordances. On the flip side of the coin, IT creates limitations that prevents a user from doing things – IT constraints. As such, the researchers argue that we cannot simply claim IT to be a root cause of the Hikikomori syndrome per se, but study the influence of IT through the lens of opportunities and constraints as it triggers both intended and positive, and unintended and negative outcomes for users. In a nutshell, using IT and digital devices can be positive for some, and negative for others.

Prof. Ondrus and his colleagues tie in this approach with evidence gleaned from data and tailored questionnaires from the Yokayoka Hikikomori Support Center based in Fukuoka, Japan, one of the most successful centres for treating the disorder.

IT designers and developers enable users to connect to each other, interact and obtain online visibility. Often, the applications and games launched on the market also offer varying degrees of involvement and interaction – from fully-fledged proactive engagement through posting comments, discussion themes, catchy videos or taking on a virtual alter-ego, to being a passive onlooker, fan or follower and in some cases lurker. One argument frequently advanced in the face of criticism – or perhaps even as a safety measure against abuse – is that IT often provides the user with a choice: either that of being visible or remaining invisible online.

But by offering the world a space for people to meet online, the double-edge sword of IT also – through the unintended constraints it induces – leads to encouraging an absence of physical relationships. Indeed, virtual socializing makes it more difficult to see and feel non-verbal messages such as gestures, voice tone, eye contact and emotion, let alone smell them – for example, the emotions generated through perfume, good cooking, the presence of flowers or even odour signals transmitted through the body such as fear, attraction, or warmth and openness. As a result, trust is more difficult to foster and with it long-term relations. Loneliness and, eventually, social withdrawal might also occur as result. All in all, in an increasingly complex and faster world, coupled with the fear of physical contact caused by COVID-19 pandemic and other diseases, such a temptation to turn to easier, more convenient and “more hygienic” means of establishing relationships is very real.

IT and the three stages of Hikikomori development

While Prof. Ondrus and his fellow researchers are still carrying out ongoing research, their initial findings point towards IT influencing Hikikomori development through presenting a series of “IT Escapes” as the disorder progresses.  These escapes are relational, emotional, and spiritual, with each escape becoming more influential at a different stage in development of the disorder, be it Pre-Hikikomori, Nascent Hikikomori or final-stage Pathological Hikikomori.

These unintended IT escapes can be taken through the influence of a number of factors which the researchers call Hikikomori Drivers – which then ultimately lead to negative physical and social outcomes.

The Hikikomori Phenomenon – is IT really to blame?

These include withdrawal into isolation, with those suffering from Hikikomori also showing other forms of behaviour outside of the social norm – barricading themselves in their rooms, cutting contact with friends, parents and family members, failing to turn up to school or work and disinterest in holding down a job.

Also read: Internet addiction: Chinese teens and kids to have smartphone, internet use curbed

Drivers – or the latent, pre-conditioning influences that may lead a person to enter the Hikikomori cycle – can simply be a matter of having access to the Internet. A traumatic childhood experience constitutes another – be it rejection or bullying at school. A third driver can be disrupted family dynamics stemming from parents divorcing or separating – or even an overdependence on one’s parents. And finally, the cultural environment too plays a part, countries or social groups characterised by conformity and collectivism seeming to have a higher tendency to trigger the disorder. In short, the availability of IT coupled with negative family, school, working environments and stressful life events open up a road that leads to Hikikomori. Moreover, the influence of these drivers are significant throughout the three stages of the disorder.  

The Pre-Hikikomori stage, for example, sees people engaging in social media networks or virtual worlds that, gradually gains importance to begin to replace face-to-face contact. In the Nascent stage, people become increasingly more comfortable with conversing and expressing their emotions in the virtual space and begin to withdraw – the virtual relationships becoming more intimate than their physical relationships. As such, despite the intention of IT to bring people together to socialize, it actually exacerbates the progression of loneliness and withdrawal. As stage 3 kicks in – Pathological Hikikomori – extreme and problematic behaviours begin to occur along with complete immersion and preference in the virtual over the physical world. Online gaming and virtual reality simulators are the main means of escape, with Hikikomoris even ending up marrying a “virtual waifu/husband” – a virtual animated wife or husband).

Previous studies have shown that Hikikomoris tend to use the internet extensively and it has been recognised as one of the key catalysts for its development.
Image: Shutterstock

The reality of the unreal

IT does influence the emergence of mental frailty and disruption – as manifested in its most extreme form in the Hikikomori. Moreover, as humans, we tend to see IT devices and technologies as somehow set solid and unchangeable once launched. But this research and its findings hint that such IT creations, in a sort of nightmare sci-fi scenario, do in many ways take on a life of their own.

One could argue that machines and technology – much like philosophies and dogmas in the real world – are in themselves not necessarily harmful, the harm coming when they are used and interpreted by humans for other ends. But this too, may reinforce the argument that innovators and creators would be wise to blend into their designs an essential reflection on the possible and unintended uses their non-human offspring might spawn.

Jan Ondrus is an Associate Professor of Information Systems at ESSEC Business School Asia Pacific.
This article was first published in CoBS Insights.