Pages Navigation Menu

Everything You Need to Know About Ulsan

Please, Ma! Just 5 more minutes!

Julia is a bright 8-year-old grade-one student who, like most of her peers, attends an English hogwan after the state school is finished for the day. After English class, she has art class and piano class at other private academies. Once home, she does her homework for about an hour and a half before studying for another few hours. If she finishes early, then she can play computer games or watch TV for up to one hour before bedtime. Bedtime for her is 1am. She wakes up at 5:30am to start the next day. When asked how she feels, Julia says, “I’m tired, but my mom gets angry when I’m not awake.”

While hers is an extreme case, she is not alone. Most Korean children are not getting enough sleep. An article in the Chosun Ilbo highlighted that Korean kids get significantly less sleep than their peers in other countries. On average, the children here sleep for about eight hours and forty minutes per night while American children sleep for nine and a half hours.

The biggest reason for this sleep difference is the school system. Korean parents spend millions of won sending their kids to hogwans, to better their education and their chances of getting into top universities. But are parents nudging their children to the top of the academic heap, or unwittingly shoving them off a cliff edge?

Recent studies throughout the United States have shown that when children sleep less than eleven hours per night, their brains are not developing properly, which can cause permanent damage and lead to problems not only with learning, but with their overall health and well being.

A child’s brain continues to mature until the age of 21, and much of that development happens during sleep. Without it, the right pathways aren’t formed to allow kids to turn memories from short to long term. Basically, tired children can’t remember what they just learned. Lack of sleep can negatively affect children’s IQs just as much as exposure to lead.

Foreign teachers in South Korea are often surprised by how late the kids here stay up. It’s not uncommon to find a group of boys playing in the park at 10pm, or babies being carted around the supermarket on a late-night shopping trip. A quick poll of seven to 10-year old students at a hogwan in Okdong showed that while many went to bed at nine or ten at night, a large number were routinely up until midnight. The biggest factor in this late bedtime is homework. “I usually spend two or three hours on homework,” says Sam, a grade four student. “When my homework is finished, I have free time, but it’s usually time for bed.”

An American study found that when kids slept for ten hours per night rather than the recommended 11 – 13, after only three days they were testing two years below their previous level in cognitive maturation and development. On average, an “A” student sleeps only 30 minutes more than a “D” student, yet that half hour shows a marked difference in their learning capabilities. There are also signs that the moodiness and depression experienced by teenagers could likely be caused by lack of sleep in their formative years, as it impairs their emotional stability.

Too little sleep also slows the body’s ability to extract glucose from the blood stream, which can lead to obesity. A Japanese study showed that children who got less than eight hours sleep a night had a 300% higher chance of being obese than those who got at least ten hours.

“I feel bad for them,” says Sun, an English teacher at a hogwan in Ulsan. “It wasn’t like that when I was young. We were in bed by 9pm. There was an announcement on TV saying it’s time for all the children to go to sleep. But even if I don’t want that (late nights of studying) for my children, I’ll have to do it. Otherwise, they’ll be left behind.”

The current government is working to improve the Korean education system in order to eliminate the need for private academies. Besides implementing new programs like bringing foreign English teachers into the state schools, they are also trying to restrict hogwans by forcing them to close their doors by 10pm. But without a national campaign to alert parents to the dangers of sleep deprivation, it’s likely that time and money will continue to be spent sending children to extra classes when what they really need is a good night’s sleep.