With idols debuting as young as 14, experts say it's time for action
As K-pop groups are becoming younger and younger, members in their early teens are no longer outliers. Idols aged 15 are so common that their age hardly receives attention anymore. Members aged 14 still raise some eyebrows, but have nonetheless grown common in the mainstream K-pop scene — “mainstream” in the sense that they debut as legitimate K-pop artists, not as a part of a special project for child stars, and gain significant popularity.
K-pop idols debuting in their early teens is nothing new. Singer BoA’s debut in 2000 at the age of 13 and Taemin of boy band SHINee’s 2008 debut aged 14 are some examples that shocked the public at the time.
However, the idea of a 14-year-old maknae — the Korean term for youngest person in a group — has become less surprising to K-pop fans especially since last year. Three 14-year-olds debuted this year alone, most recently member Leeseo of girl group IVE who debuted last week. Born in 2007, she became the youngest idol to debut on the mainstream K-pop scene.
Prior to Leeseo, Japanese member Mire of girl group TRI.BE and Jian of girl group Lightsum also debuted this year at the age of 14. The trend of extremely young idols is not limited to female stars: Jongseob of boy band P1Harmony and Japanese member Niki of boy band Enhypen were 14 when debuted late last year.
“[K-pop idols in their early teens are] certainly not unprecedented, but I feel this trend has accelerated recently, partially due to trot audition programs,” said Lee Gyu-tag, a professor of pop music and media studies at George Mason University Korea.
Trot is an upbeat genre of Korean pop music that peaked in popularity from the 1950s to 80s. The genre has seen a revival in the past few years thanks to hit audition programs for trot singers such as TV Chosun’s “Miss Trot” (2019-21) and “Mr. Trot” (2020).
“Many child contestants have appeared and gained popularity on trot audition shows,” Lee continued. “Since trot is mostly enjoyed by older generations, seeing children perform on such shows was like watching a cute talent show and wasn’t uncomfortable to view.
“This spilled over to the K-pop scene. The idea of extremely young contestants became normalized, leading the public to grow more accepting of very young K-pop stars. 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.”
There is an upside, however, to starting one’s K-pop career from an early age. According to pop culture critic Ha Jae-keun, “the positive is that young talents are able to spread their wings and do what they love from a young age.”
Indeed, the aforementioned 14-year-old rookies have been largely praised that they are just as talented and skilled as older members. In the case of boy bands, many fans actually welcome the fact that young Korean members have ample time to establish their careers before having to enlist for their mandatory military services.
Still, experts remain wary about potential ramifications.
“Idols in their early teens are in the midst of growing, during which they are supposed to be socialized through peer interaction at school and enjoy making childhood memories,” said Ha. “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.”
“When young teenagers become K-pop idols or hopefuls, they’re basically going into isolated group training,” said Lim Myung-ho, a psychology professor at Dankook University who specializes in child and adolescent psychiatry.
“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.”
Another factor that causes some to be concerned about very young idols is the shift in trends among K-pop girl groups. The demure, innocent image has fallen out of fashion and female acts have moved onto portraying strong-minded, mature women — meaning young girl group members often have to “present an overly mature or even sexualized image that doesn’t suit their age,” according to Professor Lee.
“And it’s not necessarily about being scantily clad,” continued Lee. “What I find troubling is when idols in their early teens portray an identity that they’re too young to comprehend. When I see very young stars sing dramatically emotional lyrics, I wonder if they really understand what they’re singing about. Then their performance of the song ends up lacking depth.”
Lee added that extremely young idols may even affect K-pop as a brand.
“One of the typical criticisms toward K-pop is that it is a ‘factory system’ — that the idols simply perform what their agencies have already created for them,” he said. “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.’"
K-pop audition shows, since they center around trainees who have not yet debuted, feature even younger hopefuls on television. Wonyoung who re-debuted this month as a member of IVE was 13 years old when she appeared on Mnet’s audition program “Produce 48” in 2018 and 14 when she debuted as a member of girl group IZ*ONE, which was formed through the show.
MBC’s currently-airing audition program “My Teenage Girl” took it up a notch and features contestants as young as 11. Only one of the 83 hopefuls was born before 2000.
The extremely young age range led to controversy from the first episode after a video of a subpar performance of girl group Oh My Girl’s “Nonstop” (2020) by two hopefuls went viral on YouTube. However, the clip of the two girls being scolded by the show’ judges stopped being funny to many viewers once they realized the girls were just 14 and 15.
“Getting scolded by celebrity judges on national television and having clips of your embarrassing moments posted on the internet virtually forever is obviously incredibly traumatizing for children,” said Professor Lim.
“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.”
Experts believe it is unlikely this trend will die out, so they suggest the necessity to come up with a response plan.
“Based on the current trend, I think the debut age for K-pop idols will continue to get younger and younger,” Lim said. “If we can’t do anything about that, the second best thing management agencies must do is prepare a support system for their young artists’ socialization and mental health. It’s absolutely necessary for the idols’ success, especially in the long-run.”
“If agencies sexualize young idols or present them in a way that is too mature for their age, consumers should also be able to discern and call out what’s unsuitable,” said critic Ha. “Additionally, the idols themselves, as well as their parents and agencies, need to think deeply about what they’ll do if their career doesn’t take off. That’s why they should never neglect education, even if they dream of K-pop stardom from a young age.”
BY HALEY YANG [firstname.lastname@example.org]