Advertisers Should Tackle Loneliness of Chinese Youth

Internet Addiction Has Created a Nation of Isolated Kids, Says O&M's Kunal Sinha

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Young Chinese are increasingly addicted to computer screens and mobile phones
Young Chinese are increasingly addicted to computer screens and mobile phones Credit: Kunal Sinha

SHANGHAI ( -- Mental health is of growing concern in China, following a series of knife attacks in schools and suicides in Chinese factories, but one potentially serious issue is being ignored. Scratch the veneer of their busy, productive lives and teenagers and young adults in China share a common characteristic: loneliness.

Kunal Sinha
Kunal Sinha
Having grown up bereft of companionship, especially in the bigger cities, a whole generation of young people is seeking refuge in front of computer screens.

A recent study by MTV revealed that China is the only nation in Asia where online friends outnumber real-life friends. Digital media experts tout this statistic as a great reason for marketers to use social media in ad campaigns.

But I think these figures are potentially dangerous to the mental health of China's youth. So does the China Youth and Children Research Association, which says 60% of college students in China feel isolated. Their research suggests that 30 million youngsters below the age of 17 are suffering from mental problems and anxiety disorders, and that depression rates among college students are on the rise.

"My students usually come to me and say that they don't know how to communicate with people. These students usually have low self-esteem, they feel isolated and excluded," said Tong Xiaojun, associate professor at China Youth University for Political Sciences in Beijing.

Today's youth generation is blocking out the sounds of the outside world with headphones. Barely out of the cocoon created by their over-protective yet hard-driving parents, they are retreating into another kind of shell. Once they join the workforce, pressure will increase in the form of intense competition for jobs, recognition, mates and income to buy material goods that signal achievement.

Even in sports, where do Chinese athletes excel? Taught that success comes at someone else's expense, they are great at individual competitive sports, such as table tennis, gymnastics, diving and weightlifting, but seldom do well in team sports, notwithstanding basketball's popularity.

The result is a dangerous phenomenon. Some of these young people end their own lives, while others take lives.

In the last few months, ten workers at Apple supplier Foxconn's factory in Shenzhen, all between the ages of 18 to 24, have committed suicide. Company management has cited personal issues such as romantic troubles, family problems and loneliness, and called in experts for advice on preventing further deaths.

Foxconn set up a helpline for depressed workers, established rooms with punch-bags to help employees vent frustrations and offered RMB 200 ($29) bonuses to staff who warn managers when colleagues have emotional problems. Foxconn has even brought in Buddhist monks to conduct religious rites and alleviate staff anxiety. These measures, Foxconn claims, have helped prevent another 20 suicides.

The recent spate of attacks on kindergartens across China is also a symptom of a loneliness and frustration that is plaguing a significant section of society. In this case, the perpetrators of the crimes have all been middle-aged men in small towns expressing violent grievances against the most vulnerable and cherished members of their community. Several experts have suggested that because China does not yet have an effective mechanism to diagnose and treat mental illness, these men and their unstable condition have gone undetected until they have resorted to violent reprisals.

Advertisers play a role in this, too. I've advocated before that brands should stop promising gullible parents that they can turn kids into super-achievers, and help take some of the pressure off young kids. Here's a new idea -- marketers should help find parents and kids create opportunities for China's youth to socialize and spend physical -- not virtual time -- with one another and build a sense of real companionship and even help Chinese youth deal with failure.

Kunal Sinha leads Ogilvy Earth, Ogilvy & Mather's sustainability practice in China in addition to serving as executive director of discovery at O&M, Shanghai.

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