Stresses and strains: The 2012-2014 K-pop idol psychological survey and what it means

Image above: EXO’s Luhan recently filed for the nullification of his contract with SM Entertainment. Stress was cited as one of the reasons.

What is life really like for a Korean entertainment star?

This question seems to be at the heart of a large chunk (if not the majority) of discussion of K-pop and, to a lesser extent, K-Drama across the internet. Recently it seems to have risen even further up the priority list of the K-pop fandom hive mind ever since the string of departures, oustings and hiatuses that have made 2014 a year that SM Entertainment will most likely wish to forget.

Very rarely are we, the audience, allowed any kind of real insight into working like for Korean idols, actors or trainees. Variety shows and documentaries might allow a glimpse every now and then but they are so carefully orchestrated that it is difficult to distinguish the reality from the shiny façade.

This week a story broke that, on the surface, seemed to offer some real scientific measure of the stresses and strains of life in front of the cameras in the Korean entertainment industry. The results of a three year long psychological survey was released showing in real terms how entertainers are affected by life in the industry and what their biggest concerns were.

The responses came from 224 individuals over 3 years from many of Korea’s biggest entertainment companies including JYP, Cube, TS, Starship and LOEN Entertainment. Slightly surprisingly this story seemed to be barely covered by English K-pop news outlets and when it was, it was very poorly presented. Here are the full results of the survey.

The first thing that stands out, of course, is that Korea’s two biggest K-pop companies SM and YG Entertainment did not take part in the survey. Neither, it appears, did a lot of the big acting agencies such as SidusHQ. While this may have been billed as an idol survey in the press but it was in fact a more general survey of performers and trainees and so it is equally important to note how many acting agencies are missing.  It’s also noticeable that JYP’s figures seems to have very high figures in comparison to the rest of the companies.

Unfortunately there’s not nearly enough information here to make any real conclusions. The number of performers who identified with each category is listed below but, because the sample size from each company is not given, it is difficult to make sense of the numbers.

There are several reasons why these figures seem misleading. JYP entertainers make up over 75% of those who reported feeling uncertain about their future. But what if they also made up 75% of total participants? Viewing the other numbers, it seems it would have to be lower than that but it could realistically be close.

On top of that because nothing about the methodology or circumstances of this study has been released it is difficult to analyse and interpret the data. What if JYP is a company that is actually sympathetic to its young trainees and has created a culture where is it much easier to voice to your concerns and find support? A long shot admittedly, and not one that easily fits in with most anecdotal evidence, but not out of the question. What if the other companies have a culture of fear that makes trainees feel unable to speak their minds? Even more plausible.

It’s great that this kind of information is being gathered and hopefully it means performers in at least some companies are receiving more and better psychological support. Having said that, this is a pretty good example of how figures can be so poorly-reported and twisted by PR people and journalists that they become misleading or just simply meaningless.

These figures were released to the public in the form of a press release from the office of Ahn Hong-jun a member of Saenuri, the ruling political party in order to highlight the issue of suicide among young people. Ahn presented these figures to support an agenda, and while it may be a wholly worthwhile cause, journalists should be able to detect that bias and do more of their own research. If they don’t, they have not reported the data to their audience correctly and are not doing a good job.

Another press release released today on his website reports that new research shows 11.2% of Korean teenagers have had some kind of ‘experience of depression related to suicide’. I’m not sure what that is actually supposed to means but it doesn’t sound good. It’s easy to scapegoat entertainment companies for making their employees lives hell but there are wider social factors at work here.

It’s a shame that these figures were so poorly presented because this is a very interesting topic and it is important that young performers (and if fact all young people) are given the support they need. Assemblyman Ahn said about the survey, “due to the cooperation of the music companies, it can be seen as a positive that these companies who control the culture of Korean youths participated in the survey, but some big companies, like YG and SM not participating in the survey is a problem.” For all of this survey’s issues, this is a fair summary of the overall project. Regardless of how the outcomes were presented publicly, this is a step in the right direction for Korean entertainment.

Perhaps in future we will see more and larger surveys of this kind that are more truthfully presented to the public. One can always dream.

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  • Ethlenn

    Without releasing any variables or methodology, this survey means very little, from a sociological point of view (I have few of them at work, so I know them “snowball” method etc.).
    Why only 2012-2014? And of course, lack of SMEnt and YG somehow nullifies the results, I’m sorry.

    • Lizzie (beyondhallyu)

      Yeah I agree, it’s hard to tell if the survey in itself has any value at an industry/governmental level but the way it has been presented adds nothing at all to public understanding.

      It would be good, if these numbers were the result of better psychological support for performers but it’s absolutely impossible to tell from the original press release and the report itself doesn’t seem to be available to the public.