How WeChat Is Extending China’s School Days Well into the Night

Students file math homework in their virtual classroom on WeChat.
Excerpt from this article:

On a recent Thursday evening, Zhang Zehao, a seventh grader in Tianjin, China, braced himself for extra math assignments posted by his teacher on WeChat, a messaging app. At 7 p.m., his mother received a picture on her phone: a piece of paper with three handwritten geometry problems concerning parallel lines. He didn’t receive any other assignments that evening; after all, it was only the fourth day of the spring semester.

Since Tencent launched WeChat in 2011, the app has pervaded Chinese life. The company reported that it had 650 million monthly active users as of the end of last September. In a society that places paramount importance on academic success, WeChat has quickly become intertwined with education, tapping into a particularly Chinese cultural dynamic and in some cases exploiting it.

Chongqing, a sprawling metropolis of 30 million in southwestern China, has required all kindergartens, primary schools, and middle schools to open official WeChat accounts before the end of June this year to streamline communication with parents and students.

For Zehao, the app is a forum for extra homework and a billboard for misbehavior at school, and the group chat puts everything under the scrutinizing eye of the entire class. “The intention was good, because teachers wanted to work closely with parents to improve the children’s academic performance,” says his mother, Chen Zongying, 43. “But it stresses you out.”

 

A New Weapon for Battling Cellphones in Theaters: Laser Beams

Ushers aiming lasers at a patron using a cellphone at the National Center for the Performing Arts in Beijing. Credit Gilles Sabrie for The New York Times

Excerpt from this article:

Audience members using cellphones bedevil performers and presenters around the world. But in China, theaters and other venues have adopted what they say is an effective — others might say disturbing — solution.

Zap them with a laser beam.

The approach varies, but the idea is the same. During a performance, ushers equipped with laser pointers are stationed above, or on the perimeter of, the audience. When they spot a lighted mobile phone, instead of dashing over to the offender, they pounce with a pointer (usually red or green), aiming it at the glowing screen until the user desists.

Call it laser shaming.

Xu Chun, 27, who was in the audience for “Carmen” at the National Center for the Performing Arts in Beijing last month, said: “Of course it’s distracting. But seeing lighted-up screens is even more distracting.”

This may be a response to a particularly acute problem here. Audience numbers have surged in recent years, along with the number of new performance spaces. And theatergoers are often noticeably younger than in the United States and Europe, with a corresponding lack of experience with Western-style concert etiquette. The lasers, theater managers say, are part of a larger effort to teach audiences how to behave during live performances.

 

China Shares Its Loneliness

A man sits alone holding a bunch of balloons

Excerpt from this article:

A popular hashtag in China #WhatIsYourLoneliestPhoto is raising that very question [of what loneliness looks like] on the popular social media platform Weibo. Thousands of people have responded by posting images which they think capture loneliness in everyday life.

Although it is unknown what exactly is happening, or has happened, in many of these photos, just by posting them alongside the hashtag #WhatIsYourLoneliestPhoto has reignited the debate about loneliness in China, and especially as experienced by older people.

 

Opinion: don’t cast an evil spell with your selfie stick

People taking a selfie in front of the Colosseum, Rome.

Excerpt from this article:

There is a video on YouTube of a fight between a pair of tourists on a sightseeing cruise in Sydney Harbour. The two men brawl on deck after encroaching on each other’s selfies.

The video is a fake, apparently, but like most good parodies it feels uncomfortably close to the truth, and I’d bet that a similar scene has played out somewhere in the real world.

… Everyone wants to record their experiences on holiday. Nothing wrong with that. But taken to an extreme, this behaviour reduces the travel experience to a box-ticking exercise – and the compulsive quest for a self-mythologising shot in service of social media has spread the disease.

… If warning signs aren’t enough, what else can be done to curb the excesses of this moronic minority of travellers? The Chinese have a radical solution: their National Tourism Administration is compiling a blacklist of people who damage cultural relics and ignore social customs, among other misdemeanours. It sounds more than a trifle sinister – an Orwellian agency monitoring your downtime – but perhaps they don’t have any faith in a hearts-and-minds approach.

For Sympathetic Ear, More Chinese Turn to Smartphone Program

Photo: Gilles Sabrie for The New York Times

Excerpt from this article:

She is known as Xiaoice, and millions of young Chinese pick up their smartphones every day to exchange messages with her, drawn to her knowing sense of humor and listening skills. People often turn to her when they have a broken heart, have lost a job or have been feeling down. They often tell her, “I love you.”

“When I am in a bad mood, I will chat with her,” said Gao Yixin, a 24-year-old who works in the oil industry in Shandong Province. “Xiaoice is very intelligent.”

Xiaoice (pronounced Shao-ice) can chat with so many people for hours on end because she is not real. She is a chatbot, a program introduced last year by Microsoft that has become something of a hit in China.

…Researchers say there may be cultural reasons to explain the popularity of a program like Xiaoice. Michelle Zhou, a former IBM research scientist who is now the chief executive of Juji, a Silicon Valley start-up that generates personality profiles from social media interactions, said Chinese people have far more face-to-face interactions every day than most Americans.

“When Chinese come to the U.S., they feel the country is very quiet,” she said. And so, she added, a chatbot like Xiaoice might offer users a sense of personal space that is otherwise difficult to find in a densely populated society.

Dr. Zhou, who worked for several years in an IBM research laboratory in China, added that her friends had found unexpected, practical uses for Xiaoice, such as providing the illusion of proof for parents that they were in a relationship.

“Here, parents wouldn’t force their children to find a mate,” she said. “In China, if you’re 26 without a boyfriend or girlfriend, they were immensely worried.”

…“When you are down, you can talk to her without fearing any consequences,” said Yang Zhenhua, 30, a researcher who lives in the east coast city of Xiamen. “It helps a lot to lighten your mood.”

Screen Addiction Is Taking a Toll on Children

Excerpt from this article:

Parents, grateful for ways to calm disruptive children and keep them from interrupting their own screen activities, seem to be unaware of the potential harm from so much time spent in the virtual world.

“We’re throwing screens at children all day long, giving them distractions rather than teaching them how to self-soothe, to calm themselves down,” said Catherine Steiner-Adair, a Harvard-affiliated clinical psychologist and author of the best-selling book “The Big Disconnect: Protecting Childhood and Family Relationships in the Digital Age.”

…Two of my grandsons, ages 10 and 13, seem destined to suffer some of the negative effects of video-game overuse. The 10-year-old gets up half an hour earlier on school days to play computer games, and he and his brother stay plugged into their hand-held devices on the ride to and from school. “There’s no conversation anymore,” said their grandfather, who often picks them up. When the family dines out, the boys use their devices before the meal arrives and as soon as they finish eating.

“If kids are allowed to play ‘Candy Crush’ on the way to school, the car ride will be quiet, but that’s not what kids need,” Dr. Steiner-Adair said in an interview. “They need time to daydream, deal with anxieties, process their thoughts and share them with parents, who can provide reassurance.”

Technology is a poor substitute for personal interaction.

Out in public, Dr. Steiner-Adair added, “children have to know that life is fine off the screen. It’s interesting and good to be curious about other people, to learn how to listen. It teaches them social and emotional intelligence, which is critical for success in life.”

Edit:  Be sure to see this follow-up post about articles that take the other side of the argument.

Why It’s Almost Impossible to Find a Postcard in China

Excerpt from this article (I still love sending and receiving postcards, but is this a dying art in the digital age?):

Kunshan is just west of Shanghai, in the heart of modernizing China. But finding a postcard, finding a stamp, getting that stamp to stick, finding a place to mail the postcard — even just getting anyone on this state-of-the-art campus to accept the idea of putting a letter in the mail — have proved a challenge, and not just because of my wobbly Chinese. In my travels to the tourist traps around Kunshan, I have seen exactly one Chinese person writing a postcard.

…For many Americans, sending a postcard from an exotic locale is still a mainstay of modern travel, if only to prove you actually went somewhere. It’s short and sweet, no heavy messaging required, the Twitter of a block-print age. And who doesn’t enjoy finding a handwritten missive among the supermarket fliers and other invasive species that swarm our mailboxes?

…The relative rarity of the handwritten postcard here is symptomatic of a pell-mell rush toward a digital and depersonalized future. It seems sad to see the broad strokes of Chinese culture and communication shrunk to a 3-by-5-inch screen, and delicate brush lettering now reduced to pecking with two thumbs.

Americans like to imagine that we are the most tech-savvy, if not tech-addled country on the planet. But we have nothing on China. Which means if you visit the Middle Kingdom, plan on sending a selfie from in front of Mao’s tomb to prove you were here. But forget about mailing Mom a postcard.