China’s Online Youth Lead US Counterparts in Digital Self-Expression

November 30, 2007

This article is included in these additional categories:

Asia-Pacific | Youth & Gen X

Millions of young Chinese are embracing the internet as a discreet space for their thoughts and emotions – almost five times as many Chinese as Americans surveyed said they have a parallel life online (61% vs. 13%) – according to a survey of Chinese and American youth released today by IAC and JWT.

Fewer than half of the 1,079 American respondents agreed that “I live some of my life online” (42%), a sizable majority of the 1,104 Chinese respondents agreed with the statement (86%). The two random online surveys polled 16- to 25-year-olds.

The “Young Digital Mavens” study aimed to explore how attitudes toward digital technology are changing among Chinese and American youth at a time when people are spending less time with traditional media and more with interactive technology.

China’s ballooning online population, estimated at 137 million, is now second only to that of the US (165-210 million Americans, according to a July 2007 report from the Pew internet & American Life Project).

The study found a large majority of youth in each country now feels dependent on digital technology, but that attitude is especially pronounced in China:

  • As many as 80% of Chinese respondents agreed that “Digital technology is an essential part of how I live,” compared with 68% of Americans.
  • The internet is such a vital part of life for Chinese youth that they are twice as likely as young Americans to say they would not feel OK going without internet access for more than a day (25% vs. 12%).
  • And more than twice as many Chinese youth admitted they sometimes feel “addicted” to living online: 42% vs. 18% of Americans.

“The Chinese people seem to be way ahead of Americans in living a digital life,” said IAC Chairman and CEO Barry Diller in Beijing, where he spoke to more than 350 Chinese students at Peking University. “More activity online means a more connected and a more evolved workforce – just what China needs as it makes its move from being the workshop of the world, to a developed economy in its own right.”

Test-Driving Freedom and Identity

“For young Americans, the internet provides an incremental increase in the huge range of options they enjoy in life, but for young Chinese it represents a steep increase in choice – and this is reflected in the strength of Chinese response to questions about opinions and interactions online,” said Tom Doctoroff, JWT’s CEO of Greater China and Northeast Asia area director.

Chinese respondents were four times as likely as Americans to agree that things online often feel more intense than things offline (48% vs. 12%). This feeling was more prevalent among Chinese men than women (52% vs. 43%), likely reflecting the fact that men were more likely to describe themselves as “dedicated gamers” (27% vs. 19% of women).

Young Chinese of both genders, however, are likely to find emotional stimulation and release online: 61% of both male and female respondents agreed that “I have felt strong emotions (e.g., anger, compassion) prompted by online interactions”; this compares with 47% of young American men and women.

While the internet provides an outlet for young people everywhere who are testing out different identities as they seek to discover themselves, this is especially true in China, where it allows more scope for experimentation than life offline:

  • More than twice as many Chinese respondents agreed that “I have experimented with how I present myself online” (69% vs. 28% of Americans).
  • More than half the Chinese sample (51%) said they have adopted a completely different persona in some of their online interactions, compared with only 17% of Americans.

Such experimentation is contributing to the development of self-awareness among Chinese youth. Far more Chinese than Americans agreed, “Online interactions have broadened my sense of identity” (66% vs. 26%) and “Online interactions have made me more self-aware” (60% vs. 26%).

Finding Real Community Online

The communication and community that interactive technology facilitates has a stronger appeal for Chinese youth than for young Americans. For example, more than three-quarters (77%) of the Chinese sample agreed that computer/console games are much more fun when played against others online, compared with one-third of Americans.

While fans of virtual communities are in the minority in both countries, “second-lifers” (those who agreed that “I feel more real online than offline”) account for just 4% of the US sample compared with 24% of Chinese respondents.

While many Westerners debate whether online experiences and relationships are “real,” far fewer Chinese have doubts:

  • As many as 82% of young Chinese agreed, “Interactivity helps create intimacy, even at a distance,” compared with just 36% of young Americans.
  • Almost two- thirds (63%) of Chinese respondents agreed that “It’s perfectly possible to have real relationships purely online with no face-to-face contact,” vs. 21% of Americans.

These relationships are fundamentally changing the way Chinese youth interact with each other:

  • Fewer than a third of Americans (30%) said the internet helps their social life, but more than three-quarters of Chinese respondents (77%) agreed that “The internet helps me make friends.”
  • Moreover, three times as many Chinese as Americans (32% vs. 11%) were willing to admit that the internet has broadened their sex life.
  • As many as 54% of Chinese said they had made or heated up dates using text messages, compared with 20% of Americans.

Free Speech Very Free Online

In the United States, fewer than half of Americans (43%) agreed, “I often use the internet to find the opinions of others or to share my opinions.” By contrast, in China, where culture and political environment place less emphasis on personal views, almost three-quarters (73%) of Chinese respondents said they go online to share opinions.

Chinese respondents were also more likely than Americans to say they have expressed personal opinions or written about themselves online (72% vs. 56%). And they have expressed themselves more strongly online than they generally do in person (52% vs. 43% of Americans).

Chinese respondents were almost twice as likely as Americans to agree that it’s good to be able to express honest opinions anonymously online (79% vs. 42%) and to agree that online they are free to do and say things they would not do or say offline (73% vs. 32%).

“One of the biggest differences between American and Chinese youth is in attitudes toward anonymity,” said Doctoroff. “In the US, with its cult of celebrity, young Americans see the internet as a way of getting known, of building their personal brand; many regard the internet as a kind of personal broadcasting medium. But whereas publicizing your name, face and opinions is seen as a step toward success in the US, in China it has been a surefire way of veering into dangerous territory. So for young Chinese, the internet is the ideal place to air opinions and hear what others think without crossing the line.”

About the study: In both China and the US, random online surveys polled respondents aged 16-25. The US portion, which included 1,079 respondents, was conducted Nov. 9-14 using SONAR, JWT’s proprietary research tool. In China, Millward Brown surveyed 1,104 respondents Nov. 9-15; the survey was conducted in Chinese. The US data set was weighted to balance the number of males and females surveyed; the China data set was weighted to balance out age-distribution differences with the US sample.

While the US sample is representative of America’s youth, the Chinese sample is weighted toward the young elite: Only about 10% of the Chinese population is online, largely young, urban and educated males. See table for more demographic data:


All Chinese respondents had a monthly household income of at least RMB 1,500.

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