Stories about South Korea’s education obsession are nothing new. News outlets have run exposés of illegal late-night cram schools or lamentations of the country’s high-pressure testing system. In these stories, much has been said about the mental health repercussions of 14-hour school days. But there are now growing concerns about the physical consequences of keeping students in a classroom from dawn to dusk.
A recent study out of Seoul found that Korean children aged 3-9 spend just 34 minutes outside each day, less than a third of the 1 hour, 59 minutes their peers in the United States spend playing outdoors. In addition, 7-9 year olds spend more than an hour taking extra classes each day and more than an hour watching TV. They also spend 34 minutes surfing the Internet.
The fact that Korean children spend so much time on sedentary activities is a major cause for concern – just look at one of the many studies on the risk of staying seated all day. But researchers are also worried that by spending 90 percent of their day indoors, children are not getting enough exposure to sunlight, which can cause health issues including vitamin D deficiencies, asthma, and even nearsightedness.
According to the United States’ National Institutes of Health, “obtaining sufficient vitamin D from natural food sources alone is difficult.” Instead, being exposed to some sunlight is essential to getting enough of this key nutrient. Children who do not get the recommended level of vitamin D are at risk for rickets, “a disease characterized by a failure of bone tissue to properly mineralize, resulting in soft bones and skeletal deformities.” In adults, a lack of vitamin D can soften bones and speed osteoporosis.
Koreans have grown increasingly concerned about this issue in the past few years. Korea’s National Health Insurance Service announced last year that the number of Koreans who saw a doctor for a vitamin D-related issues jumped from 2,027 in 2009 to 18,637 in 2013 – an 800 percent increase.
Experts have attributed this both to the amount of time Koreans spent indoors, and to an increased awareness of the health concerns related to this deficiency. “More people are now aware that vitamin D deficiency can affect one’s muscles, bones and immunity and is even associated with cancer,” Lee Sang-hyun, a doctor at the National Health Insurance Service Ilsan Hospital, told the Korea Herald. “As for young children, I think it has to do with them not spending enough time outdoors.” In fact, children under the age of 9 were the second-largest group of vitamin D deficient patients, after the elderly.
Another at-risk group were women – a 2004 study found that Korean women had the lowest vitamin D levels among the 18 countries surveyed. The survey, conducted by Seoul’s Severance Hospital, found that 88 percent of Korean women were below the recommended level of vitamin D. A Korea Times columnist pointed to cultural norms that value paleness as a possible culprit, writing, “Light skins are very popular among many East Asian women, evidenced by the plethora of ’skin-whitening’ pills, lotions and creams available in cosmetics stores, and in Korea it is already a common sight this spring to see women making sure to cover their faces with books and handbags as they cross a sunlit street, even if just for a few seconds. While there is nothing at all wrong or unhealthy with this in itself ― quite the opposite ― the sun is avoided to excess by South Korean women.”
Perhaps a more surprising issue tied to a sun-free lifestyle is myopia, or nearsightedness. For decades, the adage was that spending too much time on close, detailed work – taking notes or playing on a phone, for example – were the causes of poor eyesight. Recently, however, scientists have realized that sunlight may be the key to proper eye development.
Myopia essentially occurs when the eyeball is elongated, causing an inability to focus on objects farther than a few feet away. Some studies have suggested that dopamine, which is released during sun exposure, can hinder the lengthening of the eyeball, keeping children from becoming myopic. One study compared children in Singapore and Sydney, finding that only 3 percent of the Australian children had myopia compared to 30 percent of their Singaporean peers. Researchers were able to determine that the critical difference between these groups was that the children in Sydney spent 14 hours a week outside compared to 3 hours for the Singaporean children.
The problem is particularly severe in South Korea. There, myopia rates for 20-year-olds have skyrocketed from 18 percent in 1955 to 96 percent in 2011. Only 4 percent of Korean 20-year-olds do not have this eyesight issue (for comparison, 40 percent of Americans have myopia). This statistic is both surprising and scary – up to 20 percent of people with the condition will develop “high myopia,” which can cause more serious eye conditions and even blindness.
The solution to these issues is simple, but not easy. In a country like South Korea, where students routinely study late into the night at private cram schools, sunshine is likely not a priority. A new study found that elementary school students spend an average of 150 minutes studying in addition to their normal school day, with middle schoolers spending more than 200 minutes.
Some projects around Asia are working to boost sun exposure without cutting into study time. In China, for example, researchers have built a “bright light classroom” that allows sunlight in through walls and ceilings made of transparent plastic. And in Taiwan, a study asked teachers to lock kids outside during lunch, forcing them to spend that time outdoors. This 2013 study found that just this small change accounted for a much lower rate of myopia among those students than students at other schools in the area.
In Korea, this issue is currently delegated to local school districts and parents rather than being addressed on the national level.
Whatever the solution, it is clear that Korea needs to do something to curb the long-term health consequences of the country’s sunlight deficient lifestyle.
Jenna Gibson is the Director of Communications at The Korea Economic Institute of America. She runs KEI’s media relations and outreach along with managing KEI’s online presence. Follow Jenna on Twitter at @jennargibson.