Kpop’s Age Rabbit Hole – When Are Idols Too Young To Debut?

By Emma C. C.

By Emma C. C.

As Kpop’s popularity seems to be growing by the day, album sales have been going up but idols’ ages appear to be going down. That is, newly-debuted idols seem to be getting younger and younger, with the number of artists debuting at 14/15 increasing in the last few years. And this fall down the rabbit hole shows no signs of stopping any time soon. But why is that? Why are idols getting younger? And most importantly – why does it matter?

The Not So Unprecedented Trend of Minors Debuting 

Truth be told, idols debuting while underage has become the norm in the industry — seeing members who are 17 years old at debut is something that happens pretty often, so much so that no one even bats an eye anymore. And whilst we could open a lengthy discussion over whether that is or isn’t problematic, let’s address the real elephant in the room — idols debuting while being 16 and under. 

Artists debuting at such a tender age is not an unprecedented trend by any means. In fact, it has been around since the beginning of Kpop.

The First Generation (1991-2002) had BoA debuting at 13 and Kangta from H.O.T. at 16, while the Second (2003-2010) had various idols debuting at 14 years old – namely, Taemin from SHINee, HyunA with Wonder Girls, and Krystal from f(x). And the Third Generation (2011-2018) wasn’t all that much better, with various idols debuting at 16 (such as Tzuyu and Chaeyoung from TWICE), 15 (BTS’ Jungkook and Red Velvet’s Yeri), and 14 (NCT’s  Jisung and Wonyoung with IZ*ONE). 

However, it’s important to keep in mind that these debuts represented outliers in the industry, and 14-year-old maknaes (the Korean term for the youngest member in a group) caused quite a shock among fans at the time. Whereas now, in the midst of the Fourth Generation (2019-present), that’s nothing out of the ordinary. Actually, the trend has not only been normalized – it has accelerated

Just think of the newer idols you see roaming around nowadays. We have a myriad of idols debuting at 16 (e.g., Jiwoo from NMIXX and Harin from NewJeans) and 15 (ITZY’s Yuna and STAYC’s J), and about a dozen others debuting at 14 — for instance, IVE’s Leeseo, ENHYPHEN’s Niki, NewJeans’ Hyein, CLASS:y’s Boeun, P1Harmony’s Jongseob… and I could go on for quite a while.

But its blatant acceleration is not the only alarming aspect of the trend, especially in regards to girl groups. With girl crush concepts taking the lead in popularity, you have these barely-teenagers singing lyrics that are inappropriate for their age at best, and downright worrying at worst. 

For instance, girl group NewJeans recently caused a kerfuffle with their debut song Cookie, as its lyrics prompted plenty of eyebrows to rise. The group’s company tried to paint the track as being innocent and cute, but with verses such as “Made a little cookie / Baked it just for you”, “No water, water, you’re thirsty though” and “Take it, don’t break it, I wanna see you taste it / […] Bet you want some”, that innocence can be called into question. 

Over the last few years, Kpop fans – both overseas and within South Korea – have begun to call out companies who undertake this practice, explaining how harmful it is for such young people to enter the idol industry. Yet, 14-year-olds continue to debut, and this trend has no ending in sight.

Do Kpop companies not see fans’ complaints, or do they just not care about the backlash? Well, the answer is likely the second option, as idols debuting at a very tender age is actually quite fruitful for companies from a business standpoint…

Kpop Companies And Their Balance Sheets – Why Are They Debuting Teenagers?

For starters, the younger the idol is at debut, the longer their career is expected to be – and that longevity goes for both women and (Korean) men. Korean male idols face the impending military enlistment obligations of South Korea, according to which able-bodied men aged 18 to 28 (international age) are meant to serve for two years. This two-year hiatus can be quite detrimental to idols’ careers, especially if it wasn’t solid to begin with. Since an artist debuting at 14 gives them about 14 years before they are required to enlist, it gives a company ample time to milk the idol’s skills and fame. 

On the other hand, female artists face an obstacle that’s far greater and more challenging than military obligations – ageism. It’s no secret that women in the entertainment industry are considered walking fossils by the time they reach 30, and in Kpop it’s even more blatant, since female idols are seen as having one foot in the grave at 25. Ergo, debuting at 14 years old means they have more or less ten years before they are considered yesterday’s news – a much more inviting deal for companies. 

Last but not least, another reason as to why debuting minors is better for the company’s bank account is that underage idols are easier to sell (and if reading that statement made your skin crawl, trust me that writing it wasn’t all that much fun…). At the end of the day, celebrities are not only selling their craft, their own self is put on the market too, especially nowadays in our ever-present social media bubble. A young and plump face will naturally draw in more prospective buyers (yikes, I know), and the longer that lasts the more money will pour in for the company. Sure, idols can get touched up to look younger for longer, but why gamble with surgery when you can get natural youthfulness for free? 

On a similar note, younger debutants are easier to commercialize, as their tender age ensures longer parasocial relationships between idols and fans. Parasocial bonds are a sure bet for income to Kpop companies – the quality of the music and visuals can be put on a lower pedestal if you can convince fans there is a possibility for romance with the idol. As long as companies can successfully brand the idol as the perfect boyfriend or girlfriend, fans will keep supporting and their wallet will be safe and sound! 

That illusion begins to fall apart once the artist enters their own real romantic relationships. A 2020 study has found that the average marriage age among Korean individuals is between 30 and 32 – hence, it is very plausible for idols to begin dating more seriously in the second half of their twenties. Ergo, debuting minors enables companies to take advantage of the parasocial appeal of their artists for much longer, as well as allow them to mold the idols in a way to keep them in line and ensure that their perfect image will never falter. 

But while it might make sense for companies and their balance sheets, debuting idols at a very young age has various ramifications that must be addressed…

The Dangerous Gamble of Minors Debuting 

The main (and most obvious) negative repercussion on the idols is due to how much they need to give up in order to debut – a massive chunk of their formative years will be spent training, and that is bound to have long-lasting psychological effects.

In order to adhere to the rigid training schedule and idol obligations, they have to sacrifice many aspects of “normal life”, and among those is education. Idols debuting at 14 years old most likely dropped out of middle school, which means that a huge chunk of their academic career has been sacrificed. And given how hard it is to actually debut and make it as an artist, that sacrifice is a big gamble for their future – what happens if they do not succeed as a celebrity, since they have no robust academic baggage to back them up? 

And not only is their (lack of) education the price to pay, but all the formative experiences that come with being in school among peers are something these idols miss out on. Lim Myung-ho – a psychology professor specialized in child and adolescent psychiatry at Dankook University – shared his concerns regarding what the lack of these experiences might do to a child.

When young teenagers become K-pop idols or hopefuls, they’re basically going into isolated group training,” explained Professor Lim, “The isolation and lack of peer interaction are bound to affect a child’s psychological development and coping mechanisms later as an adult. 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.” Long story short – it’s not an ideal situation.

Another possible ramification that should arise concerns is how by debuting at a tender age, idols become the perfect dish for all the creeps who roam around Kpop fan spaces. It’s no secret that the Kpop industry has a huge problem when it comes to sexualization – between suggestive choreos, outfits that barely cover the figure, and questionable lyrics, idols are not exactly being shielded from objectification and hyper-sexualization at the hands of both fans and the media. Au contraire, it’s almost encouraged. 

That is incredibly problematic regardless of the idol’s age, but when the idol in question is a child, that becomes even more of a problem. For starters, it creates an unsafe environment for the artist, by putting them in danger of getting in contact with individuals with predatory intentions. Plus, it can have repercussions on the idols’ way of thinking as well, particularly in regards to their body. Imagine being 14 years old and having adults make inappropriate remarks on your appearance and objectifying you, while disguising them as compliments… you may become convinced that showing off your body is how you get positive comments. Ergo, you might be persuaded into believing that exploiting your body is the way to achieve validation and self-esteem boosts. And that sets a dangerous precedent in the minds of barely teenagers. 

The Complacent Silence of Fans 

In light of recent debuts, more and more fans have begun to speak up about age in the idol industry, pointing out how problematic the situation is and how it has worsened over the last few years. So much so that it has even drawn the attention of the Korean general public, with k-netizens joining the bandwagon against companies and demanding legal action from the government to prohibit trainees under 16 from debuting.

You might be wondering, but what can I do? Well, the main thing us Kpop consumers can do about this situation is stop financially supporting groups with very young members, which means no buying their albums and no streaming their music. You might think that you are doing them a favor by supporting them, as supposedly you are making their dreams come true! However, consider what message that sends to companies in the long run – encouraged by the support, they will likely think that debuting minors is perfectly fine, and the problem will only get worse.

Other than that, what fans can (and should) do in order to escape this rabbit hole is simply continuing to talk about it and calling it out. Words have a lot of power but so does silence, and by  remaining silent about all of this you are sending Kpop companies a clear-cut message – what you are doing is okay. Whereas, voicing concerns about minors debuting and continuously raising awareness only furthers the cause.

Fans often react to the situation by saying, ‘Well, we can’t change how things are, so why should we even put up a fight?’. But that’s actually not true because by spreading the word, someday it might reach the right person and we will see actual change. Companies may choose to put their fingers in the ears to not hear the complaints, but that doesn’t mean you should put a hand over your mouth. Keep spreading it. Keep talking about it. And someday we will get out of this rabbit hole. 

 

Edited by: Alexa 

Photo by ShareGrid on Unsplash

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