Fierce competition in schools coupled with a native puritanism intensifies the worries of adolescence. No wonder teenagers are flocking to stress centres. Brendan O'Malley reports
In Europe the British are thought of as a reserved people - stiff upper lip and all that - but by Korean standards British youth is carefree and open. That is the conclusion of Duck-hee Kim, a counsellor at a stress centre for pupils in Seoul that was set up three years ago. She says Korean teenagers worry about many types of problems, but they often have difficulty talking to someone face to face about them. And the one subject they seem to want to know a lot more about is sex.
"English people are very open about sex," says Ms Kim. "But in Korea it's very different. They don't have a lot of knowledge. In school, when they ask how babies are made, teachers will say 'You don't need to know.' "Boys will even ask what should be the length of their penis. They want to know things that are hard to ask in the open. And they want honest answers."
The numbers attending the counselling centre offer a barometer of the pressures that teenagers ar under in a country where the pressure to do well in exams is fierce. The centre serves 50 elementary schools, 39 middle schools and 13 high schools in the Kangnam district. The numbers seeking advice jumped from 2,500 in the first year to 4,300 the next - and are rising.
Ms Kim, who is one of four counsellors and two experts helping the youths, by telephone or in a counselling suite in a high school, says: "They come with different problems. It may be their classmates or friends will not have anything to do with them. They might be worried about getting a job when they leave school. They might have been sexually assaulted. Or they might just have problems with parents - or sex."
The worries about sex stem partly from the lack of sex education in schools. "In middle school they learn about basic body parts, not about sex, so they are anxious to get counselling. The girls worry about getting pregnant or what to do if their boyfriend touches them. I advise them about getting a pregnancy test or using the pill or physical protection.
"Boys are usually worried about masturbation - 'I'm doing it often. Is it OK?' - or the length of their penis." Ms Kim has a smart way of putting that concern in perspective. "How tall are you?" she asks them. "Do you think you would have problems living if you were a few centimetres shorter?" The counsellors also put on two-week courses for students who have dropped out of school for a year or more and want to find a way back. Usually they are aged 13 to 14 and often find it hard to adjust to school life after their freedom. "The course is on what they should do in school, how they should treat teachers, how education has changed - things like that," says Ms Kim.
So, have youth concerns changed over the years? "I find the subjects are different and have increased a lot," says Ms Kim. "In the past they used to come with problems in the family or with friends. Now it is more to do with feeling isolated from the group. And increasingly they want sex counselling."
There has been the odd case of solvent addiction, but hard drugs are not a big problem.
Ms Kim thinks the growing feeling of loneliness and bullying reflects the switch from large families to ones with only one or two children. "Today's parents raise them like a prince or princess and they don't have ability to overcome the isolation when they are shunned by their friends.
"In the past, if friends didn't talk they'd just go home, because their parents were like a friend. Nowadays they need friends because they have so many after-school lessons to go to that they get home too late to talk."
This problem has eased a little recently as the schools have begun to allow first and second year students to return early at night. However, Ms Kim says her 18-year-old daughter, in the third year at high school, usually gets home at 10pm, and then goes through her lessons preparing for the next day.
It's a product of the exam driven system and the competition for places at further education and the fact that there is no strong social security system to fall back on if you don't get a job.