Spamming pseudoscience shows generation gap in China

By Deng Huiqi, Li Yuanjing and Sun Nan Source:Global Times Published: 2016/11/7 19:38:39

Chinese parents and their adult children are disagreeing over posts circulated on WeChat. One side says forwarding these posts shows love and care, the other says they are too controlling, a trait all too common with Chinese parents and may actually pose risks to those who take pseudoscientific advice too seriously.

Many young Chinese people are tired of the WeChat posts their parents send them. Photo: Li Hao/GT

Many young Chinese people are tired of the WeChat posts their parents send them. Photo: Li Hao/GT

Xiaoyu slept in until noon, since she had no schoolwork the next day. She powered on her mobile phone and it immediately started buzzing.

A quick look at the screen showed her mom had already forwarded 10 articles from 1,000 kilometers away. Each with a hyperbolic title written by some so-called expert: The evil consequences of going to bed late and getting up late! Beware: Your body will be like this if you don't have breakfast! A message to today's youth; you'll die young if you keep living like this.

Usually, Xiaoyu just deletes or ignores these messages.

This is a common interaction between Chinese parents and their adult children these days. While in the old days, parents might intrude on their children's lives by reading their diaries or talking to their friends behind their backs, in an age of the Internet and migration, this phenomenon takes place over social media, especially WeChat.

WeChat, which reportedly has more than 806 million users, is rife with posts about parents nagging from a distance.

The younger generation of writers who sound off on the topic say their parents lack so-called media literacy. They believe their moms and dads have trouble judging the reliability of the information they read online.

A recent WeChat post published under the title Why we block our parents' posts put it this way: "Parents lack the experience and knowledge to deal with the online information explosion that rushes past them. They don't understand there is a very sophisticated team out there that is manufacturing pseudo-knowledge in a bid to gain attention. Parents seem doomed to lose the battle."

Urine trouble

Song Sha, a 28-year-old living in Changsha, Hunan Province is sick of her mother Wang Li (pseudonym) sending her all sorts of "tips" on WeChat. At the same time, she's worried that her mother's lack of judgment may hurt her.

Wang began by sending Song pseudoscience posts that doesn't do much harm, like Drinking boiled water can damage your lungs, or Houses in Guangxi are only sold for 10,000 yuan ($1,476), get your own!

But recently, her mother started forwarding her health tips and even treatment plans. Wang told Song she's read so many posts related to medicine that she feels she could start treating people, beginning with her daughter.

"But the posts she read aren't really professional," Song said. "That's the problem. And it's quite scary when I think about it."

Two of the most significant treatments her mother learned from these posts are blood-letting and urine drinking, both of which she practices regularly.

Last month, Song became pregnant and moved back in with her mother for the sake of convenience. She woke up one day from a nap to a pain in her foot, and found her mother standing over at her feet with a pair of glistening needles that were as thick as juice box straws.

Horrified, she confronted her mother about what she was doing and her mother said, "I'll just stab a hole in your foot, let out some blood to cure your cough."

Song packed up her things and moved out as soon as possible. She said she hadn't thought these posts would have this much effect on her mother, let alone herself.

Chicken soup spam

"My mom sent me two 'chicken soup posts' early in the morning. Then there was a health-related advertorial at noon. After my nap I got another weird message about how my health is in danger. They're basically all junk. I won't read any of them. To tell the truth, it's really annoying," Xiaoyu said.

Xiaoyu tries her best to ignore the messages but this doesn't dampen her mom's enthusiasm for sharing. "She seems to have no sense of my antipathy," Xiaoyu said, looking helplessly at her phone.

But parents are also frustrated. Many say their children don't understand that they only forward such articles because they are natural worriers and want the best for their kids.

"All I want is his wellbeing. I really don't understand why he objects," says a woman surnamed Yang from Chongqing Municipality, whose son is studying in Beijing.

Her son calls the articles pseudoscience and warns her that some of the recommended remedies could cause more harm than good. "The messages I send him are all, I believe, true. I wish he would at least have a look at them," Yang said.

It's not only the high frequency of messages about health from overly anxious parents that annoy their kids.

"I really can't understand why you think this article is worth sharing," wrote Lanlan, a 23-year-old master's student, in a testy reply after her mother sent her a dubious post titled An apple in boiling water: A disturbing scene.

A crudely produced video shows white foam forming after an apple is placed in a pot of boiling water. It purports to show the inherent dangers posed by apples and urges viewers to forward the warning.

Lanlan is incredulous about the dire consequences of eating one of the world's most popular fruits. She thinks her mom is gullible and is concerned about what this says about her judgment. She taps out a frustrated reply that is more than a little snarky.

"It's just the natural wax that forms on apples." Her follow-up message tried to smooth her tone as she offered her mom some of her own advice. "Just peel it if you're worried, and don't blindly believe these posts."

After a long silence, her mom replied with two letters, "OK" and a smiley face.



All for your own good

One mother in Shanghai isn't about to quit giving advice, which she believes is her inherent right as a parent. "It's our duty to educate our children and it's better to give them something than to just stay silent. I think they may learn something if we persist."

Dads are also notorious WeChat spammers, say their children. A father surnamed Sun sends his daughter nine inspirational messages every day, which only succeeded in eliciting the young woman's scorn.

"I don't see anything bad in these articles. They are just transferring positive energy," said Sun, obviously feeling more than a little hurt.

Yaya and her parents have established a kind of online truce. She used to get multiple health-related articles every day. Like a good daughter she calls her mom and dad on an actual phone once a week and occasionally talks to them on WeChat. She has told her mom and dad outright that she doesn't appreciate their online nagging about her lifestyle and their assumption she's not taking care of herself.

Now, instead of sending messages directly to her, Yaya's parents post the articles to the public part of their WeChat account. It's easier for Yaya to ignore them, but she still feels like the posts are preachy, condescending, and aimed at lecturing her.

Professor Wu Weihua, a social media expert at the Communication University of China, has found that older parents and their adult children are attracted to very different online topics. "Those posts that are hated by young people are quite popular among their parents. Scientists call it selective acceptance, and once something is believed to be true, it will quickly spread to their circle of friends."

Fangfang, mother of an adult daughter, argues that those who claim older people lack judgment online are arrogant or even ageist. Mastering the use of the technology is far from rocket science, she said, arguing parents have lived long enough to see through cons and bad advice. 

Fangfang said many parents are only trying to pass on long-held cultural beliefs and knowledge about maintaining good health. "For generations we've believed that certain foods should or should not be eaten during one season or another. Parents are sharing this knowledge to demonstrate their love and concern. We can't just ignore them because they're adults. That's very much part of our parenting culture too."   

Parents' remembrance of their own youth also plays a role in their heightened sense of worry about today's youth. They believe young ones face more slippery slopes toward poor health practices than they did back in their day. Many parents also recall the hardships and loneliness they had to deal with when family greetings traveled by snail mail only, or when a phone call home was a rare event.

Chinese parents have a reputation for being over protective but they feel social media allows them to continue to play a loving role in their children's lives. The children, on the other hand, resent their parents meddling and worrying about what they are learning from the Internet. Where one generation sees social media as an open door, the other feels it's the cage they thought they had finally fled. 


Newspaper headline: Misguided messages

Posted in: IN-DEPTH

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