A preteen boy with glasses gets off a minibus operated by a local private institute. With his shoulders slumped under the weight of his backpack, he heads toward yet another institute in his hectic day.
The 11-year-old's schedule, revealed in a recent report by ChildFund Korea, involved studying after school at English, Chinese, math and piano institutes, and going to bed at 2:30 a.m.
"For kids in my neighborhood, sleeping five hours a day is pretty generous. We usually go to bed around 1 a.m., because of all the homework," he said.
Roughly 50 per cent of Korean children say they are severely stressed by the pressure to achieve high academic results, the highest figure among 30 developed nations around the world according to a state-run institute.
Kim Mi-suk, a researcher from the state-run Korea Institute for Health and Social Affairs, compiled data from the United Nations Children's Fund and Korea's Welfare Ministry to find out where children suffer the most from academic-related pressure.
For her study, she looked at 30 countries ― most in North America and Europe, including the United States, Canada, United Kingdom, Netherlands and Spain ― and compared them with South Korea. Other Asian countries were not included in the study.
Some 50.3 per cent of South Korean students scored three out of four in the category of "pressured by school work," which was 17.2 percentage points higher than the average of 33 per cent. Korea was followed by Spain, Slovenia and Portugal, and Dutch students were found to suffer the least from study-related stress ― only 16.8 per cent said they were stressed out.
South Korean is infamous for its extreme emphasis on education, which often starts early. According to Korea Consumer Agency, 41 per cent of parents said their children started receiving private education before entering elementary school.
On average, private education for elementary school students costs around 370,000 won (S$452) per month.
Experts are split on the effectiveness of early education. But some experts like Ewha Womans University professor Lee Ki-sook warn about the possible side effects of academic pressure on young minds.
Lee, who conducted a six-year study on a group of 181 children, said children forced to study hard from a young age can become isolated or even aggressive later in life.
Kim's report also showed that severely pressured Korean children scored the worst in "life satisfaction," with only 60.3 per cent saying they were satisfied. The second-lowest country on the list, Romania, had a score of 76.6 per cent.
In contrast, 94.2 per cent of Dutch children said they were happy with their lives.
"Korean children's low life-satisfaction is closely related to study-induced stress. This calls for (state-led) strategies to alleviate their pressure, such as adjusting class hours," Kim said. "There is also a need to procure free time for children as well as infrastructure like parks."