How much autonomy do China’s “digital children” have in their online lives?

72% of Chinese parents said they do monitor what their children are doing online, but the survey results show that their specific concerns differ from parents in the west.
Chinese Market Research User Research China: Youth Demographics

My personal relationship with the internet started in 1995, when I was 12. We were the first family on our block with AOL. My parents bought me a computer, spray-painted it pink, and then largely left me to my own digital devices. Though at the time I was considered an early adopter, by today’s standards, I would have been freakishly late to the game. Most western children begin their online lives in earnest between the ages of 8-11, and kids in China begin using digital devices, on average, at 7 years old.

I also had free reign over my online activities. My folks probably suspected that they ought to be supervising my net use, but in an age where checking browser history seemed like black magic, they weren’t quite sure how to go about it. Plus, without the ability to make online payments, and prior to the popularization of social networks, there was a limited amount of trouble I could get into (though I did spend a few days listening to every .wav file in an audio archive of human screams, and there’s probably no undoing that psychological damage).

Point being, I had, I think, more freedom than most kids do now. These days, keeping your kids on a tight digital leash is part and parcel of responsible parenting. Many families limit screen time, monitor conversations, or install net nanny software to block access to adult content.

How much agency do Chinese children have over their net use? A new white paper by Wavemaker Global“>white paper by Wavemaker Global takes a look at China’s 6– to 15-year-old user demographic, and sheds a little light on all of these questions.

What do we mean “autonomy”?

Before I get clobbered by philosophical ethicists, allow me to draw the battle lines: when I say “autonomy,” what I mean is “decision-making control.” More specifically, I’m taking a page out of a 2001 paper on the topic (Barber & Martin):

Autonomous agents must consider their goals, make decisions about how to achieve those goals, and act on these decisions. Incorporating these properties, autonomy becomes an agent’s active use of its capabilities to pursue its goals without intervention, oversight, or control by any other agent.

In the context of internet and device use, I break down the elements of autonomy into:

  • Control over materials: Device ownership
  • Control over content: Deciding what you view when you’re online
  • Control over time: Deciding when you get online and for how long
  • Control over consumption: Access to money to spend online, and the power to decide how to spend it

Let’s start at the top, shall we?

Materials: how many kids own their own devices?

Though the majority of Chinese kids (84%) do use smart phones, less than half (42%) have one of their own, prompting Wavemaker to label this market segment “invisible users” – i.e difficult to gather data on due to the difficulty of isolating their use from that of their parents.

Contrast this with the US, where mobile phone ownership is ubiquitous among teens (Denver Post):

A survey of 13- to 17-year-olds released this fall by the nonprofit Common Sense Media found that 95 percent of U.S. teens have their own mobile device.

Ownership is even prevalent among toddlers in all income brackets (Journal of the American Academy of Pediatrics):

[Results of a] cross-sectional study of 350 children aged 6 months to 4 years seen October to November 2014 at a pediatric clinic in an urban, low-income, minority community. … At age 4, half the children had their own television and three-fourths their own mobile device.

The contrast in desktop ownership for the US and China is even sharper: only 5% of Chinese kids own one. Five percent. Compare that to around 86.6% for U.S. teens, and we begin to see that China’s mobile-centrism, and rejection of the desktop, starts in early childhood.

Content: Parental monitoring

72% of Chinese parents said they monitor what their children are doing online, but the survey results show that their specific concerns differ from parents in the west.

A 2016 study by Pew Research Center shows that the most often-utilized monitoring method among U.S. parents was checking their kids’ site history, something 61% of respondents said they’ve done. Only 35% of Chinese parents said the same. 48% of American parents also indicated they’d gone through their children’s conversation records, versus 22% of Chinese parents. Chinese parents primarily (69%) preferred to exercise control over which games their children are playing, and which videos they’re watching online (51%).

I might sum that up with the hypothesis that U.S. parents are more concerned about protecting their kids from dangerous information and dangerous people, Chinese parents are more concerned about inappropriate or excessive viewing of multimedia.

This makes a ton of sense in light of the negative attention that internet and video game addiction has received from the Chinese government over the last ten years. In the mid-2000s, a slew of shock stories involving child net addicts gave rise to a flurry of public service announcements and lawmaking (WIRED):

The horror stories, which began appearing in the state-run newspapers as far back as 2002, fueled the panic: A fire in an unlicensed Internet café killed 25 people engaged in all-night gaming sessions; a Chengdu gaming addict died after playing Legend of Mir 2 for 20 straight hours in a Net club; two kids from Chongqing, exhausted after two days of online gaming, passed out on railroad tracks and were killed by a train; a Qingyuan boy butchered his father after a disagreement about his Internet use; a 13-year-old from Tianjin finished a 36-hour session of World of Warcraft and leaped off the roof of his 24-story building, hoping to “join the heroes of the game,” as one newspaper summary of his suicide note put it.

Though the hysteria has since died down, state regulators still keep the gaming industry under tight control (SCMP, in 2018):

“Indulging in online games is a huge hazard – the whole society should act to establish a protection net and wall for youngsters,” the official Xinhua News Agency said in a commentary published on Tuesday. “For the nation’s future, we can never allow gaming companies to hunt for wealth by inducing teens to get addicted [to games].”

Time: Do parents restrict screen time?

We don’t have great details on this one, but we can say this: 55% of U.S. parents do impose time limits on device use, and many – it’s unclear how many – Chinese parents do as well. Restrictions are harsher mid-week, with the majority restricting online time to a range of 30 minutes to one hour on school days. Restrictions are relaxed on weekends, and even more so on school breaks.

Chinese children restricted online time market research

Consumption: Access to money

Long gone are the days when kids get their allowance in crisp dollah bills and blow it on Push Pops at the gas station. Digital wallets like those associated with WeChat are letting Chinese kids and teens take control of their online shopping: 32% of Chinese kids had their own shopping accounts, and 25% of teens had their own online video accounts.

And they’ve got their own money to spend, too:

Average pocket money / month Average annual holiday money haul
Grades 1-3 RMB 80 (USD 12) RMB 3,727 (USD 554)
Grades 4-6 RMB 103 (USD 15) RMB 3,233 (USD 480)
Middle school RMB 211 (USD 31) RMB 3,383 (USD 503)

The average allowance for kids in the U.S. is a little higher, around USD 35 per month for children 4-14, but factoring in exchange rates and cost of living between countries, the difference in dollar amounts is perhaps less interesting than the difference in how money is accessed (Huffpost):

[In the States], in many families belonging to the “middle class” and above, a child of 11 is often given her own bank account with a debit card, or is added on to an adult’s credit card.

I have some thoughts about this (shocker).

First, the act of checking out with a credit or debit card is a much more involved process than the act of checking out with WeChat or a similar digital wallet. Digital wallets don’t require any name, billing address, CVV, or expiration date input. There’s just a single payment passcode, so as far as kids are concerned, the barriers to use are lower.

Second, taking all this data together, it’s possible that Chinese kids are harder to reach than US youth in terms of direct-to-kid marketing (and depending on where you stand on the ethics of advertising, that might be a good thing). They’re not using their own devices to shop and browse, so the ads they’re served probably aren’t well-targeted for them. They’re not using desktops, so they’re not seeing sidebar ads in a full-screen browser. They’re watching TV online rather than network television, so they’re probably catching a few pre-show ad spots, but aren’t bombarded with commercial breaks.

I don’t really have any interest in laying out how to circumvent those protections – the world does not need more efficient Fruit Loops commercials – but it’s interesting to note that they exist.

Get the Monthly Digest

Our best insights on China's digital markets, right in your inbox.

You May Also Like