Children and teenagers in China are hyper-connected and using the internet in ways that were unimaginable and inaccessible to earlier generations.
As many as 175 million people under the age of 18, or 93.1% of the country's underage population, were internet users in 2019, according to a joint report released by the government-affiliated China Internet Network Information Center and the Chinese Communist Youth League.
The digital divide was quickly closing. Internet penetration among urban minors was 93.9%, just 3.6% more than their rural counterparts, compared to a 5.4% gap in 2018. Almost all of them accessed the internet through smartphones. The US, by comparison, recorded 95% smartphone access among teens in 2018.
Though up to 81.9% of Chinese schools restricted the use of cellphones, 74% of the underage population reported having their own internet devices. 89.6% went online for educational purposes — the COVID-19 pandemic that has kept millions of students at home would certainly fuel more persistent adaptation of online education. 61% used the internet for gaming and 46.2% for streaming short videos on apps like Douyin (TikTok China) and Kuaishou, a category that is now consuming as much user time as social networks in China.
Contrary to widespread concerns, only 17.3% of the underage users reported they had developed “psychological dependence” on the internet, although the result should be taken with caution as it is based on respondents' subjective evaluation. About 67% said they used the internet to learn about the world and just as many for day-to-day studying. 60% saw the internet as an entertainment tool and 53% to run daily errands. Only one-third said the internet was a way to meet friends and even fewer — 18.8% — viewed it as a medium for self-expression.
While many parents are growing wary of internet safety for their children, 75.3% of the Chinese underage users said they had “some understanding” of rights protection or ways to report inappropriate behavior with regard to internet use. Many internet platforms have introduced child-protection features in response to government requests. All of China's major short video platforms launched a parental control mode last year restricting minors' time spent on bitty content. In a similar move to cope with addiction, the country's biggest games publisher Tencent tightened age verification checks for its players.