China’s “left-behind” children addicted to short video content

Just months after the Chinese government announced tighter regulations on short video platforms, new research underscores the severity of the “short video addiction” problem – most notably among rural China’s “left-behind” children.

Wuhan University’s China Rural Governance Research Center surveyed residents of 1,000 villages across Henan, Hubei, Hunan, and Jiangxi provinces to find more about their phone usage. According to the survey, 40.4% of left-behind children own their own device whilst a further 49.3% have access to a caregiver’s device. Short videos are the main form of entertainment for the majority of children surveyed (69%) and 67.3% of caregivers surveyed believe the children under their care are addicted to their phones.

The Wuhan University report pointed out that the double reduction policy introduced in 2021 has exacerbated the problem. With homework tasks and afterschool remedial classes no longer taking up time, left-behind children have little to do besides play on their phones. Whereas children living in cities have access to non-academic extracurriculars like sports and crafts clubs, left-behind kids have no such provisions and usually must occupy themselves whilst their caregivers are busy.

Left-behind children are rural children whose parents have migrated to cities in search of better job prospects. In a UNICEF report from 2015, this demographic was previously estimated to comprise a staggering 70 million children, many of whom are in the care of grandparents or other relatives.

Loosening of household registration laws has meant that a greater proportion of rural children have accompanied their parents to cities over the last decade. But the pandemic threw this off course as job opportunities were stretched thin and private afterschool classes shut en masse, forcing many migrant parents to send their kids back home.

On China’s twitter equivalent Weibo, a hashtag surfaced about the research, drawing in 26 million views. The topic resonated with many who felt that children lack the ability to discern low quality or fake content. Others hinted at the disparity in activities provision between urban and rural kids: “Build golf courses, ski courses and equestrian courses for left-behind children, then they won’t be addicted to short videos!”. Another questioned the focus on short videos altogether, instead asking “shouldn’t the question be what has caused the phenomenon of left-behind children? What do short videos have to do with it?”


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