Debuting in your early teenage is not a new phenomenon in the K-Pop industry. In 2000, BoA debuted when she was just 13 years old. SHINee‘s Taemin debuted at 14 in the year 2008. Krystal from f(x), Sohyun from 4MINUTE–you could go on and on naming more names in K-Pop who started their idol life pretty young.
But the idea of having a 13 or 14-year-old in a K-Pop group seems to be getting normalized at an accelerated rate recently. Previously, people would at least talk about such young debuts, but now, it hardly receives any attention.
Between 2020 to 2022, many young children have shot into the spotlight of fame as idols. ENHYPEN‘s Ni-ki, IVE‘s Leeseo, Jongseob of P1Harmony, CLASS:y‘s Boeun, NewJeans‘s Hyein–all of them debuted at age 14. The fact that they are only a fraction of the long list of teenage idols is astonishing.
The positive part of debuting soon is very apparent; you earn a lot of money at a young age, gain fame, and most importantly, get plenty of time to build your career doing what you love. But how do individuals get affected by starting their careers in the idol industry so early? Is it always this nice?
Experts say it is not. As much as debuting young allows these idols to have longer, more prospective careers, it comes at a dear cost.
Pop-culture critic Ha Jae Kun says that becoming an idol at such as young age means missing out on all the socializing opportunities kids get at school through interacting with their peers and making memories.
Debuting at such a young age usually means they miss out on such experiences. In the worst case, if they fail to succeed as celebrities, they are left with limited career options since they’ve most likely missed a significant portion of their education due to idol activities.
—Ha Jae Kun
Psychology professor Lim Myung Ho from Dankook University expands this point further. As someone specializing in child and adolescent psychology, Lim Myun Ho feels that the isolation trainees go under before debuting has a much bigger impact than just missing out on socialization.
The training system in K-Pop cuts these children off from the real world so much that they end up getting deprived of psychological growth and maturity.
Even if they do rise to stardom, there’s a high possibility that they will find it difficult to handle their emotions or be resilient when faced with stress. They may also be greatly affected by hate comments, then become unable to cope and spiral into self-destructive behavior, which we’ve seen many celebrities do. The deprivation of socialization is a bigger issue than skipping school
—Lim Myung Ho
Another concern that not only experts but also the general public seem to be worried about is the lack of age-appropriate concepts in the music that these young idols partake in.
Lee Gyu Tag, a professor of pop music and media studies at George Mason University Korea, explains that this trend of debuting young idols might have its inception in the popularity of trot audition programs where child participants gain a lot of attention. But in those shows, child participants are allowed to behave their age.
The problem is, while trot programs expect them [child contestants] to perform like the children they are, idol auditions require even those in their early teen years to behave like professional K-pop artists. I’m not sure how appropriate it is for children to act way too mature for their age.
—Lee Gyu Tag
This problem is even more severe for female idols. According to Professor Lee, the popular image of Korean girl groups has shifted from the demure and innocent girl to the strong and mature woman. But young idols do not have the life experience that can help them relate to these images and healthily project them.
Plus, the issue of the sexualization of young idols is also a persistent concern. It is not just about revealing clothing but also young kids being forced to take up mindsets they are not ready for yet.
Putting yourself out there at such a young age means the entire world has access to you and your life. MBC’s recent survival program My Teenage Girl stirred up a lot of conversation for featuring participants as young as 11 years old.
Two participants on the show performed Oh My Girl‘s “Nonstop” and received harsh criticism from the judges. But when it was revealed that the two were only 14 and 15 years old, many viewers realized how problematic the whole thing was.
According to professor Lim, this type of an experience can be very psychologically tolling for kids. The clip was shared many times over the internet with the intention of ridiculing those two performers. The fact that their embarrassing performance will live forever on the internet can be highly traumatizing to those girls.
I’d even say it’s a form of emotional abuse committed under the name of show business. Those child contestants aren’t being protected at all. No child should be allowed to go through such a traumatic experience […] There should be a higher, perhaps legal, limit on the age of audition show contestants.
—Lim Myung Ho
According to Professor Lee, debuting young kids as full-fledged artists like this also feeds into the “factory system” stereotype of K-Pop.
This stereotype would be further bolstered if more early teenagers continue to debut as K-pop idols and sing lyrics they can’t even relate to because they’re too young. Of course, artists don’t always have to sing about their direct experiences. But when the performer is too young, it’s difficult to accept the music as ‘wholly theirs.
—Lee Gyu Tag
Despite the criticism and obvious signs of its harmful effects, experts feel that the industry trend of young debuts is not going away anytime soon. While Professor Lim suggests that the management labels need to build resources to support young artists’ mental health, critic Ha believes the audience also needs to be vigilant and call out inappropriate treatment or over-sexualization of these young kids.