Korean Adolescent Leisure, Health and Happines

한국청소년의 여가, 건강, 그리고 행복에 대한 고찰

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  • ABSTRACT

    This paper addresses how sport and leisure can contribute to Korean adolescent health and happiness. We first review adolescent development, and then discuss the health risk behaviors of Korean adolescents. Next we look at leisure, health and wellbeing from an adolescent development perspective. We discuss issues of adolescent autonomy, competence, relationship-building, and motivation. It is clear that across various types of surveys, Korean adolescents report lower levels of happiness and life satisfaction than counterparts in other parts of the world. They also report high levels of risk behavior, including substance misuse, internet addiction, lack of physical activity, and mental health issues. There is less information regarding Korean adolescent leisure. We conclude that from an education perspective, it appears that Korean youth would benefit from a focus on leisure education and prevention. Leisure education seems particularly important to Korean youth given the high rates of passive leisure and low rates of active leisure.


    본 연구는 어떻게 스포츠와 여가가 한국청소년의 건강과 행복에 기여하는지 알아보고자 하였다. 따라서 첫 번째로 청소년 발달에 대해 살펴본 후 한국청소년의 건강위해행동에 관해 논의하였다. 두 번째, 청소년발달 관점에서 여가, 건강, 그리고 웰빙을 알아보았다. 세 번째, 청소년의 자율성, 능숙함, 교우관계, 동기에 관련된 쟁점에 대해 논의하였다. 다양한 형태의 조사를 통해, 한국청소년들이 다른 국가의 청소년들에 비해 낮은 행복수준과 삶의 만족감을 나타낸다고 알려졌다. 그들은 또한 약물 오용, 인터넷 중독, 신체활동 부족, 그리고 정신건강 쟁점을 포함한 위험행동에 있어서 높은 수준을 보였다. 한국청소년들의 여가와 관련한 자료는 많지 않다. 결론적으로 교육적 시각에서 보면, 한국청소년은 여가교육과 예방을 통해 혜택을 얻을 것으로 보인다. 특히 여가교육은 높은 비율의 수동적 여가와 낮은 비율의 능동적 여가를 나타내는 한국청소년들에게 주요하게 작용할 것으로 판단된다.

  • KEYWORD

    adolescent , health , happiness

  • In this paper we focus specifically on the age group of adolescence, or those young people between the ages of 13 and 20. For years in North America, this was an overlooked age group. Then, when attention was paid to them, they were seen as problems to be fixed. That is, many researchers and policy makers focused on adolescents’ problem behaviors such as vandalism, violence, substance abuse (such as cigarettes, marijuana, and other drugs), and risky sexual behavior. Thus the previous approach was that there was something wrong with the individual adolescent that someone needed to fix. Today the preferred approach is what is called “positive youth development.” This approach suggests that all youth have potential and that with the appropriate adult supports and resources, they can flourish into happy, healthy productive adults. This approach also aims to help promote health and well-being and prevent risky behavior.

    It is from this positive youth development framework that we would like to address adolescent leisure and its relation to health and happiness. First we will provide a brief overview of what adolescence is. Next we will address some health-related issues of Korean adolescents from a descriptive perspective. This will be followed by a discussion of adolescent leisure in Korea. We will close by making some observations about potential research and policy implications about adolescent leisure, health and happiness.

    Adolescent Development

    In order to understand adolescent leisure, health and happiness, one must first understand what adolescents go through as they transition between being children and being adults. These issues seem to be fairly robust across cultures, although the issue of autonomy and independence/dependence is naturally driven by cultural context.

      >  Developmental Issues

    Puberty, which typically occurs in females between the ages of 9 and 14, and in males between the ages of 10 and 17, is initiated when the brain stimulates a set of hormones that stimulate sexual maturation. Of particular interest to this paper is that during puberty there is a natural biological tendency for adolescents to seek out opportunities for exposing high intensity through risk-taking, novelty-seeking, and sensationseeking behaviors.

    Researchers previously thought that the brain ceased to develop after childhood, however we now know that the brain continues to develop throughout adolescence. Knowing how the brain develops during adolescence has implications for understanding some of the ways that adolescents approach participation in recreation activities. These include:

    Given the preceding points, the adolescent brain is primed for youth to develop enduring interests. The early activation of emotions and passions can be harnessed if youth are exposed to a variety of new recreation experiences and opportunities. Goal directed behaviors intensify during this time and are often manifested by developing passions in music, art, and hobbies.

    On the other hand, adolescents’ tendency toward sensation seeking can promote risk taking or other potentially dangerous behaviors.

    Current Status and Selected Issues of Korean Adolescents

    Although research on Korean adolescent leisure, happiness, and health is in its infancy, there are some compelling epidemiological studies that begin to paint a picture of these issues.

      >  Substance Use

    A few studies suggest that substance use is a major issue for Korean adolescents. For example, Kim (2001) found that 75% of adolescents between ages 14 and 18 have “ever” drunk alcohol, and 15% reported that they drank alcohol every day or one to two times a day per week. Also, Kim found that 41% of these adolescents smoked cigarettes, with the majority being boys (53% vs. 24% girls). In another study, Kim (2004) examined smoking patterns by gender and age and found that smoking rates for boys were much higher than for girls, and as to be expected, smoking increases with age.

      >  Mental Health and Schooling

    Another serious concern for Korean adolescents is mental health status. In Kim’s study (2001), about half of the Korean adolescents surveyed reported experiencing anxiety, worry, depression and sleeping disorder. The adolescents attributed these problems to stress about academics, perceived excessive parental expectations and demands, and being excluded from a peer network. Likewise, in 2003 and using a different sample of 7th-12th graders, Kim reported that 74% of the sample studied reported interpersonal sensitivity, 57% reported depression, 50% reported anxiety, and 42% reported feelings of hostility associated with daily stresses. Gender differences suggested that more females reported interpersonal sensitivity, depression and anxiety and more males reported hostility. Moreover, these conditions increase with age.

    These findings are important for a number of reasons, but one main concern is suicide, which is the leading cause of death among young people in South Korea (retrieved http://rokdrop.com/2010/05/12/korean-children-unhappiest-among-oecd-member-nations/ 18 July 2010). YONHAP News stated that according Statistics Korea, 13.5 out of every 100,000 people aged between 15 and 24 committed suicide in 2008, the highest ratio among all causes of death reported for the age group. The cause of suicide was hypothesized to be from heavy stress related to the competitive education environment for Korean youth.

    In a related vein, a recent survey conducted by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), by a research center affiliated with Yonsei University and a foundation named for educator Pang Jong-hwan, only 53.9 percent of 5,437 schoolchildren from fourth grade to 12th said they were satisfied with their lives. That means one in two Korean children and adolescents are dissatisfied. The survey was compared with a UNICEF study of OECD member countries in 2006. Korea was far below the OECD average of 84.8 percent and marked a decrease from last year's 55.5 percent. It showed that 26.5 percent of children and adolescents in Korea subjectively feel they are unhealthy, while 18.3 percent feel alienated, the highest in the OECD. Almost 17 percent of Korean children and adolescents feel lonely, which put the country second only to Japan's 29.8 percent. Korean youngsters scored 65.1 points on the “subjective happiness index,” which combines points scored in six different categories, including satisfaction with life and happiness. That was the lowest score in the OECD.

    The greatest source of stress was school work, followed by physical appearance and problems with parents. Girls were found to experience over 10 percent more stress than their male counter parts. Boys suffered the most stress over their height starting in the ninth grade, while girls were most stressed by their weight starting in the eighth grade.

    Korean youth study an average of three hours more per day than adolescents in 30 other OECD member countries, or 15 hours more per week, according to a report released by the Ministry of Health, Welfare and Family Affairs on Thursday. On the other hand, they sleep one hour less compared to their counterparts in five countries — the U.S., the U.K., Sweden, Finland and Germany — and exercise 22 minutes less. [The Chosun Ilbo]

      >  Internet Addiction

    Kim, Ryu, Chon, Yeun, Choi, Seo et al. (2006) focused their attention on internet use among Korean adolescents, and particularly were in interested in the phenomenon of internet addiction. The rate of internet use by Korean youth between 6 and 19 years of age increased almost two-fold in the period between 1999 and 2002, and in 2006 Kim et al. suggested that the current estimation of use was about 91%. Despite the positive aspects of the internet, Kim et al. described numerous problems with over-use or addition, which they stated was becoming a serious problem in Korea. Their concerns related to internet users being less social and engaging in more arguments, thus causing strained relationships. They also suggested that academic work suffered as a result of too much internet use, that internet users engage in too little physical activity, and maintain a heightened level of psychological arousal that results in lack of sleep and proper nutrition, all of which may contribute to mental health problems.

      >  Mental Health and Negative Health Behaviors

    Kim (2001) studied the association between health locus of control, self-esteem and self-efficacy (psychological factors) and negative health behaviors--lack of exercise, mental health, smoking, illegal drug use, alcohol use, eating problems, and viewing pornography. Kim concluded that the psychological variables were correlated with the majority of the negative health risk behaviors.

    One important finding was that the psychological variables predicted 38 percent of the variance in lack of exercise. This is very important as obesity among children and juveniles have nearly doubled in South Korea over the last decade (Korea National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey for 2007, Ministry of Health, Welfare and Family Affairs). For example, the rate among children aged 2 to 18 was 5.8 percent in 1997. In 2007 this increased to 10.9 (The Chosun Ilbo, retrieved http://rokdrop.com/2010/05/12/korean-children-unhappiest-among-oecd-member-nations/18July2010).

      >  A Cross-cultural Perspective to Life Satisfaction

    Next we turn our attention to life satisfaction. Of particular interest to us are differences across nations regarding correlates of life satisfaction.

    Park and Huebner (2005) provided some interesting perspectives in their cross-cultural study on levels and correlates of life satisfaction of youth from Korea and the United States. It was interesting that they excluded youth from grades 9 and 12 due to the intense examination period during those school years. In their study, they measured global life satisfaction as well as summary variable of total life satisfaction, comprised of sub-scales of friends, family, school, self and living environment.

    For both sets of youth, the family domain contributed most to the total life satisfaction score. They also found that for the total and global life satisfaction measures, Korean students reported far lower scores than US students did. In particular, the difference between the two groups was on the self and school domains. The “self” domain was the highest rated domain for the US students, with 65% of US students endorsing a 5 or 6 (6 is the highest endpoint on the scale). On the other hand, only 10% of the Korean students endorsed a 5 or 6. Korean male students reported higher scores than female students. The self domain, however, was a significant predictor of life satisfaction for both US and Korean adolescents.

    On the other hand, school was only a significant predictor of life satisfaction for Korean adolescents. Park and Huebner (2005) made the important point that the crucial domains of life satisfaction may not be similar across cultures. For example, Confucian values suggest that education is highly valued, and thus societal and parental expectations of youth are that they excel in this area. Thus, if they succeed or excel academically, they are likely to get more positive feedback from adults and peers. In the US, students are likely to reap positive regard for more than just academics.

    Leisure and Free Time Among Korean Adolescents

    What is the picture of leisure and free time use among Korean adolescents? Lee (2003) reported on two studies she did (the first one was with Reed Larson) on understanding leisure patterns of Korean adolescents. In her first study on 56 high school seniors, students reported on their daily activities for one week using the experience sampling method. Korean students spent less than ¼ of their time on leisure activities. By way of comparison, that is about half the rate of time on leisure reported by American high school students. Note that the majority of their time was spent doing class work and homework (43% of their day). Of the roughly 23% of their day spent on leisure activities, 80% of that is spent on passive leisure or socializing; the dominant activity was TV viewing. Because this study was done in 2003, we conjecture that currently internet usage would surpass that time. Lee and Larson concluded that these passive activities were not associated with positive mood states. Moreover, class work, homework and maintenance were even more strongly and negatively correlated with positive mood states. The most positive mood state was associated with active leisure, although the correlation was not significant.

    Leisure, Health and Happiness: A Developmental Perspective

    We now turn to a positive youth development framework, revisit the developmental issues previously discussed, and incorporate a discussion of health and happiness. Although we cannot say for certain what happiness is for Korean adolescents, objectively, there seems to be cause for concern. Given our review of the literature we see that health risk knows no cultural bounds. The literature suggests that obesity, lack of physical activity, substance misuse, internet addictions, suicide, and mental health problems compromise a society’s ability to flourish and prosper, and these are all issues facing South Korean society. How these are related to leisure and to happiness, however, are culturally governed. One hypothesis is that Korean youth may be engaging in high levels of risk behavior and have high levels of mental health and lower levels of life satisfaction due to tensions between traditional Korean culture that emphasizes academic excellence and hard work with increased exposure to other cultures with emphasis on academics as well as on developing other aspects of self, such as through sport and leisure.

    If there is some truth to the previous speculation, one question is how sport and leisure can contribute to adolescent health and happiness. We link the two because there seems to be empirical evidence of a strong correlation between the two.

    This is very important because from a developmental perspective, all youth need to find out who they are as a person and how they fit into their culture and with their family and peers. Youth who are unable to come to terms with who they are in relation to their environments are more likely to experience problems. A great deal of research literature suggests that for many adolescents, part of establishing their identity is linked with developing leisure interests and passions. Exposure to, and skill development in, a variety of activities will help youth find those things that fit with their personalities and interests. These will become activities that youth identify with and to which they can attach their identities.

    Another important and related developmental issue is that research suggests that as young people mature, a certain degree of autonomy and self-direction is necessary, even among collectivist cultures. Thus the leisure activities youth engage in have to be those of inherent interest to participants; they cannot be ones that youth are told to do if youth are to reap the greatest benefits. In the US, for example, youth programs and activities are most successful when youth help plan them and are responsible for some decision making. Thus for American youth, taking charge of their own leisure to the extent possible, as long as there is appropriate adult guidance and supervision, is extremely important. In Korea, parents and adults may want to recognize the importance of both externally compelled leisure or recreational pursuits as well as ones chosen (even with the help of parents) by the adolescent.

    Of particular importance to Korean adolescents is that learning leisure skills provides opportunities for developing competence. In addition, learning to make decisions and being part of a project or program from its inception to completion are significant sources of achievement for adolescents. Youth find activities motivating when they perceive a balance between their skill level and the challenge at hand; learning and practicing skills that are at or slightly above their skill level helps youth focus and become engaged and interested in programs and activities. Providing youth the opportunity for experiential or active learning through leisure programs is a highly effective way to help youth develop interests and competencies.

    Social competencies may also be developed through leisure. Through leisure activities, youth have the potential to learn how to negotiate with peers, resolve conflict, and work together for communal goals. Youth also can experience safe places to try out different roles and interact informally with members of the opposite sex.

    Furthermore, leisure activities can provide important and safe outlets for the high intensity experiences craved by adolescents due to their developing brains. For example, climbing walls, rafting trips, ropes courses, and other adventure-type activities may provide the needed thrills craved by some youth. Leisure services staff can help youth learn to deal with their intense emotions by helping them reflect upon their behavior and understand what they are going through and why.

    Conclusions and Implications

    It is clear that across various types of surveys, Korean adolescents report lower levels of happiness and life satisfaction than counterparts in other parts of the world. They also report high levels of risk behavior, including substance misuse, internet addiction, lack of physical activity, and mental health issues. There is less information regarding Korean adolescent leisure.

    Research is clearly needed to understand the unique context of adolescent leisure in Korea. Although there is a great deal of research globally regarding leisure, health, happiness and youth development, it may have limited usefulness in Korea. Having said that, however, as societies and cultures become increasingly globalized, this research may hold some value. Beyond basic descriptive statistics, it is important to understand the relations among variables as well as for whom and under what conditions these models might hold. It will also be important to understand the contextual (environmental), experiential, and activity/time use perspectives of adolescent leisure. For example, one could study the contextual elements that promote leadership development or development of interests in a leisure setting. Other productive areas of research might be to examine the need for sensation seeking, or the relation between stress, leisure boredom, and lack of physical activity.

    From the education perspective, it appears that Korean youth would benefit from a focus on leisure education and prevention. Leisure education seems particularly important to Korean youth given the high rates of passive leisure and low rates of active leisure. It is an empirical fact that active engagement in leisure activities that are meaningful and interesting contribute to positive affect and health. By prevention, we mean programs or interventions that would serve to mitigate the incidence or stop the initiative of some serious health risk behaviors. There are programs out there that combine both a leisure perspective (i.e., health promotion) with risk prevention. Another productive line of research may be to study the role of parents in adolescent leisure.

    From a policy perspective, the positive youth development perspective would suggest that it is critical to provide the supports, opportunities, resources and programs that will enable adolescents to actively engage in leisure-related activities. Youth need places to go and adults who will appropriately guide them and provide support. These adults can help youth uncover their passions and interests. This is particularly important due to the readiness and desire of the brain to find these interests. These passions and interests will contribute to identity development, autonomy, and competence building. Furthermore, adult role models are central to developing a moral compass, and leisure services staff can fulfill this need. Youth can also learn about themselves, the world around them, and various ethical and moral issues through volunteering and service learning projects that contain opportunities to grapple with difficult decisions and weighing and discussion actions and possible consequences.

    This last point is something to consider culturally as well. Service learning and civic engagement among US youth has become a “hot topic.” Germane to this conference, many who write about happiness suggest that true and lasting happiness comes from giving to someone else to make their life better or contributing to one’s community.

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