Reflections on ICT use among children in Yunnan

From October to November this year I went to China to study children’s use of space. However, I was also able to observe how families and children use mobile phones and computers, and the differences in access and use of ICTs among wealthy tourists and rural residents. My research brought me to the capital Beijing, to Kunming, the capital of Yunnan, a South-western province, a town near Kunming with a population of about 500,000 people, as well as to a village with ca. 2000 inhabitants.

In Kunming I stayed around the Yunnan University campus, where nearby is a small lake with some tourist attractions – mostly small shops and seasonal decorations, but the area is also used by groups of older people to dance or do different styles of gymnastics. There are also some areas with children entertainment for a fee. Children who went to the area with their parents occasionally were posited in front of the photogenic tourist attraction and many pictures were taken, mostly with the mobile phone – or by one of those people who own a little stall and a digital camera, who print out the pictures on site for a fee. It was also a fairly common sight to see young children (below or around the age of ten) using a mobile phone in the company of care givers.

When I then travelled on to one of the many tourist destinations in the countryside – Yunnan´s infrastructure is being prepared to take in many tourists, especially Chinese but also international from next year on – during the public holiday-week in October I saw numbers of groups, couples and families walking around the village taking pictures of the famous sites and of themselves: usually men with professional photographer-waistcoats used digital SLR cameras and women their mobile phone (with some exceptions). One day, for example, a family arrived on the market square: the father used a small SLR camera, the mother a tablet and both children, a boy and a girl, were using two white mobile phones to take pictures of each other and their parents.

In that village, nearly every café around the old market square has internet access, used by tourists, and the music in some cafés was operated via a computer. The 4-year old son of one café-owner watched youku-clips of lectures of a famous Chinese doctor on the battered laptop in his mother´s café, enjoying it tremendously. His interest in my iPad was great for a while and he took many pictures of himself, but soon enough was bored when he saw that there were no game-apps installed. At the restaurant of a famous tourist site outside of the village, a boy was sitting on a small table, playing games on a tablet surrounded by 3 other boys. After a few minutes he was called by an adult woman, stood up and started serving food to tourists, as he turned out to be the restaurant owner’s son and the other children were customer’s children.

Once most tourists left the village again, I saw that cell phones by the villagers were used differently than by tourists: they made phone calls with them instead of taking pictures and used them to listen to traditional music – some men either carried a little radio with music on their waist belt, or they used their mobile phones to listen to music (without a headset). Seeing children with mobile phones was rather rare – once at around 9pm I saw two boys around the age of 10 lying together on the windowsill of a closed shop at the village square playing on one mobile phone. I was told that the use of computers is rare; in one shop for instance, which was opened only during market day on Fridays, stood one old desktop computer, which was occupied by 4 boys playing a video game.

Children playing games, in fact, was the most common sight for me as a traveller with brief insights. In the township that I visited as well, I often passed by two “Apple”-stores, which during the weekend afternoons until the late evenings were overpopulated by large groups of children in their early teens or younger. One night I counted 15 children around 7 devices, and on another day I counted 11 children around 3 devices in a smaller store. They were all using apps to play games.

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