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November 15, 2018

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Cyber addiction among rural left-behind kids

Finding a child who doesn’t fiddle with a smartphone is a mission impossible today. And this infatuation with smartphones has long infiltrated into rural areas, where children’s dependence on phones is considerably higher.

In the villages it is mostly grandparents who care for the very young, as a lot of the parents have migrated to the cities for better-paid jobs. These parents usually only come home once a year for the Spring Festival. And without after-school tutorials and no parents around, the left-behind children cannot help but fritter away their time on phones.

According to a report recently released by the University of Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, left-behind children spent longer time on mobile games than any other children. Of those children, 19 percent of them spend over six hours on games, two times more than those kids who stay with their parents. As a China Youth Daily article reports, every summer holiday, children in rural regions flock to zones that have Wi-Fi, such as outside a teacher’s office and local stores. They squat there with eyes glued to phones for hours, defying the blistering sun and teacher’s efforts to drive them away.

Furthermore, a child’s phone obsession doesn’t stop when the bell rings for the start of school. Though many schools forbid mobiles, students already have their countermeasures in place. They hide cellphones in their shoes, toilets or anywhere that will avoid a teachers’ inspection. They take turns to be on the lookout so that others can safely play in the middle of the night.

Unexpectedly, rural students’ phone obsession has also turned into a lucrative business for the nearby shops. Liu Chengliang, a researcher from Huazhong University of Science and Technology, found during an investigation in Yunnan Province that shops around school offer students a service to charge their phones and even sell mobiles. Paying two yuan (US$30 cents), students can have their batteries recharged. They can also purchase phones on credit and pay by installment.

Their parents are often too busy eking out a living in big cities and too far away to supervise their children. As the afore-mentioned China Youth Daily article suggests, there are also many left-behind children’s parents who fail to recognize a child’s excessive phone use as a problem. To them, phones might even serve as some sort of a babysitter to keep them quiet and away from trouble. To many of them, the only trouble is the harmful effect on the eyesight. As for grandparents, it’s difficult for them to properly discipline children due to their education and age.

Schools, enterprises and local authorities are sure to have roles to play in tackling rural children’s cellphone addiction — but none of them can substitute parents’ company and supervision. For instance, many mobile games have implemented anti-addiction mechanisms that can lock out players under a certain age after a specific time interval. But without parents’ supervision, such measures may only have a limited effect, for left-behind children may register with other adults’ identification and bypass the anti-addiction mechanism. Nor is it easy for parents to return home to be near their kids. Working in cities promises better payment, more opportunities and maybe a greater future for their children. Meanwhile, taking the children with them is also complicated. It incurs higher living costs and the problem of schooling due to Hukou or household registration system. One of the keys to stem phone addiction is to revitalize the rural industries, so that adults don’t have to migrate for employment. But this is no easy task.

Over the past 40 years, adults in rural areas have been migrating from villages to towns and from small cities to giant metropolises. In 2017, there were 280 million migrant workers, which accounted for over a third of the country’s entire labor force, according to National Bureau of Statistics. Migrant workers are the backbone of China’s economic boom, but this migration has bred thorny issues like left-behind children.

The central government’s National Plan on New Urbanization for 2014-2020 aims to integrate towns into the planning of nearby cities, in a bid to build new satellites that take on some urban functions.

It not only helps take pressure off the overcrowded big cities, but also increases investment, improves infrastructure and public services and creates jobs in towns. In this way, adults in rural regions can seek jobs closer to home and strike a balance between supporting family and raising children.


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