Cover Story

Lost in cyberspace as outdoors shunned

Updated: 2011-09-06 07:30

By Yang Wanli  (China Daily)

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Schoolchildren spend holidays in front of a screen, Yang Wanli reports in Beijing.

It was about 20 minutes after midnight in Beijing, and Yu Kun, 14, was still playing video games on the Internet while chatting in a chat room that only he and his classmates can access. His parents had fallen asleep an hour ago, unaware of their son's nocturnal doings.

Lost in cyberspace as outdoors shunned

Ren Tianhao stays at home alone while his parents go to work on May 13, 2009. He usually spends such time on the Internet or with his dog, rather than playing with friends. [Provided to China Daily]

Yu, who just started 2nd grade at a junior high school in Haidian district, was enjoying the last week of leisure before the end of his summer vacation. Even though chatting online perhaps prevented him from pursuing a more productive activity, he said it was not an "indulgence" and that he was only doing what many of his classmates did when they were away from school.

"There isn't anything interesting to do during the vacation," he told China Daily through the Internet. "It's one and a half months long. Our parents obviously can't play with us the entire time and they won't allow us to go places on our own because they are worried about our safety."

Unlike older generations, Yu and many teenagers are used to playing games on computers instead of games outdoors with their friends. As that becomes ever more prevalent, many experts are beginning to worry that it is impeding children's development.

Yu has three good friends in his class, all of whom live far away from him. "One is in Chaoyang district and the other two aren't anywhere near here," he said. "When we get together, we always end up going to museums or parks. It's boring to keep going to places that we've been familiar with for more than 10 years."

Compared with those ways of spending leisure time, chatting online and playing video games look pretty good, Yu said.

"Many of these games can be played for free and some are designed so that more than one person can play them at a time. It's great that you can play and talk with your friends without leaving your home. So why shouldn't we do it?"

Some parents, though, find such attitudes to be worrisome.

Yang Jinlan is constantly anxious about her 15-year-old son, who will take a provincial senior high school entrance examination in June next year. His family, which lives in Changsha, Hunan province, has already set the lofty goal of sending him to Changjun Senior High School, one of the best schools in the city.

To prepare for the exam, he now spends about 80 percent of his spare time reading books and using computers, Yang said.

"He seldom goes out with his friends to play sports or do other things outdoors," Yang said.

Ironically, so many hours devoted to study may ultimately hinder his chances of getting into the school.

In China, provincial entrance exams consist of two parts, a written test and a physical test. The latter threatens to be difficult for the boy, who, perhaps because he is indoors so often, has become nearsighted and overweight.

Standing 170 centimeters tall, he now weighs about 90 kilograms and wears a pair of thick glasses, Yang said.

Yang's family lives in Yuhua district, in a place containing more than 2,000 homes. Yet, even with so many people living so close together, the residents there have little sense of neighborliness.

"Most of the people here don't even know each other, let alone pay visits to each other," she said. "Kids who are younger than 3 often play together while their parents or nannies watch. But older children rarely get together for games."


Lost in cyberspace as outdoors shunned

A web user plays online games in Yichang, Hubei province on July 28. Social studies have found that an increasing number of primary, junior and senior high school students spend their summer holidays inside their homes chatting or playing games on the Internet. [Photo/ China Daily]

About 2,000 kilometers away from Beijing, teenagers in Southwest China's Yunnan province are also showing a tendency to spend less time outdoors.

"Students' childhoods these days are now totally different than ours were," said Chen Nan, a 28-year-old high school teacher in Kunming, Yunnan province. "They are under greater pressure to get into schools and have fewer chances to play games outdoors."

Born in the 1980s, Chen said he and his friends often played outside while they were growing up.

"I can't remember ever having a computer, and we didn't have much homework after class," he said. "A lot of the time, we would play badminton or other games in groups."

He said he and his friends would visit each other on the weekends. "We caught insects from trees or fish from rivers, which are things that many teenagers nowadays may even never get to do," he said. "Without the Internet, we had more time to be with our friends and I think doing that sort of thing is very important to a child's development."

The Shanghai youth service platform released a report on Aug 7 saying that about 60 percent of the primary, junior and senior high school students in the city spent half of their summer holidays inside their homes. The report also said many "indoor-teens" keep themselves busy by chatting or playing games on the Internet.

That tendency is not noticeable in Shanghai alone. During the recent summer vacation, the Tianjin youth psychology consulting center also conducted a survey of 500 students who are 18 or younger. The results showed that 68 percent of the respondents used the Internet to chat with their friends, spending more than six hours a day online. And more than 15 percent of the students never spent time playing outdoors during their entire time away from school, the study found.

Even though the habit of staying indoors all summer long is becoming more prevalent, parents may not see that as a cause for concern. Experts, though, said they should pay close attention to the ways their children are spending their time.

"My daughter talks to us less often," said a Beijing mother who declined to provide her full name. "She tells us her secrets and thoughts just as she did when she was in primary school, but now most of her spare time is spent online. I am worried that if she is overusing the Internet, she won't have enough time for studying."

Underlying troubles

Lost in cyberspace as outdoors shunned

Most parents aren't likely to have discovered on their own the troubles that their teenager's new way of entertaining themselves can bring. Experts, though, are beginning to understand the consequences of spending large amounts of time online.

In May 2010, Peking University's school of journalism and communication released a study looking at the Internet in China and those who use it. The study, which took a year to compile, suggested that those who are regularly online spend nearly 20 percent less time on average talking to their parents and about 30 percent less time to their other relatives and friends than they had before they had got on the Internet.

Xie Xinzhou, a Peking University professor who led the survey, said it's very important that teenagers learn to be sociable. He said chatting on the Internet is altogether different from speaking to someone face to face, largely because one can communicate online without the use of "body language". Those who are only used to dealing with others over the Internet will find it difficult to get on with the people they meet in everyday life.

International trend

China is not the only country where the young are tending to spend more and more time at home.

The British Broadcasting Corp reported on May 4 that the current generation of British children is turning away from sports and exercise. A poll conducted by British Triathlon, a federation for UK triathletes, and the India-based Tata Steel suggested that 10 percent of British children cannot ride a bicycle and 15 percent cannot swim.

The survey, which looked at 1,500 children who were between the ages of 6 and 15, found that only 46 percent of the respondents had ridden their bikes in the week before the poll was conducted, while 73 percent had played a video game. Fifteen percent of the children surveyed said they had never played sports with their parents.

Nan Zhenguo, director of a mental disease clinic in Beijing Huilongguan Hospital, said spending large amounts of time indoors and less time talking to others face to face does nothing to promote a child's development. "This is bad both for kids' physical and mental health," he said.

People's Daily reported early this year that nearly 30 million teenagers in China are not in good mental health. About one in five children is depressed or finds communication difficult and is losing psychological resilience. Among the causes often cited for these troubles, two stand out: Children are contending with more pressures from school and are spending less time talking to their parents.

Nan encouraged parents to monitor what their children do on social networking sites and to prevent their children from being on the Internet for great lengths of time. "Parents also need to pay attention to the latest technology, websites and applications their children are using", he said. "If you try to learn what your children are doing, then it will be easier to find a way to persuade them."

"Talking within the family will help a lot. You need to speak to your kids, or rather, listen to them," Nan said. "Parents should spend five times as much time listening to their kids as they should talking to them. Talk for one minute and listen for five."

Something good

Besides the bad, researchers have also found some good in social networking. They say that young adults who spend more time on Facebook and similar sites tend to show more "virtual empathy" toward their online friends.

Online social networking can also help give introverted adolescents a comfortable way of learning to be sociable and is a means of teaching the young new things in a compelling way.

Apart from that, more parents are becoming willing to encourage their children to spend their time traveling or doing other things that get them outside the house. In the United States, many teenagers spend their free time in volunteer work at hospitals, tourist information centers or similar organizations. Students in Germany, meanwhile, tend to use days away from school for travel.

Attending summer camp has become popular in China in recent years. In the past, many of these camps were places where children would go to practice speaking a foreign language or to travel within China. Now, though, more and more are set up to give them physical exercise or a chance to go abroad.

In Anhui province, travel agencies have organized camps where children can go for instruction in golf. For a child to stay at one of these places, his family must spend from 2,000 to 3,000 yuan ($313 to $470). To avoid excluding those who cannot afford to travel long distances, communities have also organized small summer camps where children can play games or attend lectures on subjects chosen to interest them.


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