Covid-19 uncovered a ‘digital divide’ among Hong Kong children

Appeared in Sing Tao Daily on 10 May 2023.

Governments worldwide responded to the Covid-19 pandemic, intending to slow the virus’s transmission and reduce the number of Covid-19 cases and related fatalities. Lockdowns and restrictions in the form of stay-at-home orders, closures of schools and non-essential businesses, and limiting social gatherings were among the most popular methods to combat Covid-19. Governments also limited travel, closed borders, and instituted quarantine procedures for visitors. Furthermore, expanded testing and contact tracing were adopted to identify and prevent virus transmission, while vaccine distribution programmes tried to build broad-scale immunity against the Coronavirus. Not to mention, governments implemented a variety of financial measures to assist families and companies affected by the pandemic. However, these solutions have been applied to varied degrees and with varying degrees of success.

Against this backdrop of diverse Covid-19 government responses, academic research has emerged that implies Covid-19 generally had a detrimental impact on children’s psychological well-being, mental health, and development, as well as family well-being and parental stress. Specifically, Covid-19 appears to have exacerbated the mental health of children and their families who were mentally healthy before the Covid-19 pandemic. In addition, according to several research studies, internal family dynamics, children’s increased anxiety due to COVID-19, and changes in children’s social relationships before and after COVID-19 best explain the numerous emotional and behavioural changes found in children during the societal lockdowns. Overall, public policy measures to restrict Covid-19 were found to have a considerable impact on family well-being, with significant implications for child development plans as part of preparedness and mitigation strategies for future health crises.

In Hong Kong, a recent online survey with over 400 children between 8 and 12 years of age conducted by Lingnan University in collaboration with the International Survey of Children’s Well-Being (Children’s Worlds) suggests a ‘digital divide’ among children has also significantly contributed to reductions in their psychological well-being.

The ‘digital divide’ is a term used to characterise the disparity between those with access to technology and digital services and those without such access. It refers to the contrast between those with the resources and abilities to fully engage in the digital world and those without the resources and skills to do so. The ‘digital divide’ can exist for a multitude of reasons, including a lack of access to computers, tablets, mobile phones, or the Internet, as well as limits in digital literacy, commonly understood as the ability to understand, evaluate, and use digital technology and communication tools effectively. Decades of research have shown how those members of society who are incapable or have difficulty accessing digital resources have increasingly experienced challenges in education, economic possibilities, access to health care, and other government services. As a result, the ‘digital divide’ presents a substantial social and economic issue with severe ramifications for affected individuals and communities.

During the Covid-19 outbreak, school lockdowns and the adoption of online learning pushed Hong Kong children to employ their existing digital tools and abilities to proceed with their studies—albeit with various degrees of success, according to the data collected.

Nearly all students had plenty of school resources in their homes: a place at home for study, computers or tablets, and devices for video classes. Moreover, around 85% of students reported that they ‘often’ or ‘always’ had access to the Internet during the Covid-19 pandemic. So far, so good. However, nearly half of the surveyed children also reported frequently encountering problems with their Internet connection during online classes: around one-third of all child respondents reported that they ‘often’ or ‘always’ lost their Internet connection for a whole day. Therefore, the researchers created an ‘Internet Accessibility Index’ based on three questions: “How often did you have access to the Internet”, “How often did you have problems with the Internet connection while having online classes” and “How often did it happen that you could not access the internet for a whole day”. The results of this index suggested that most children experienced some internet accessibility issues during their online learning but also that some children were affected by such issues much more severely than others.

The data obtained by Lingnan University experts also show that children’s digital skills to keep up with learning during online classes varied significantly. Only around half of all surveyed children “agreed a lot” or “totally agreed” that they knew how to get help when they experienced technical difficulties during online classes or did not understand the content of online classes, respectively. This finding also suggests that around half of all children did not “agree” with these statements and that their digital skills could be improved. Concerning their ability to continue learning from home, around four out of ten children did not “agree a lot” or “totally agree” that they could do so effectively.

Children’s experiences with school lives—and their potential problems with accessing necessary digital resources and skills—were also critical for their subjective well-being. Interestingly, child respondents were more worried about the changes in their lives as a student and that they may receive bad marks because of the Covid-19 situation than about their access to material resources or that people in their families may get infected with the Coronavirus. Analysis of the Lingnan survey also established that children’s satisfaction with the things they learned at school was a more important predictor of their subjective well-being compared with their satisfaction with their time use, material possessions at their home, and feelings of protection from Covid-19 after controlling for children’s gender, age, and other characteristics.

These findings about children’s varying access to digital resources and skills are surprising given Hong Kong’s significant progress toward becoming a world-leading “smart city”, which aims to effectively use advanced technology to optimise city operations and improve the quality of life for its residents. Several successful initiatives illustrate Hong Kong’s achievements. For example, the Hong Kong government’s rollout of a comprehensive public Wi-Fi network across the city has offered Wi-Fi connectivity in many public areas. In addition, installing an electronic payment system for public transportation established what is now known as ‘smart mobility’ in the city. The Hong Kong government has also created an innovative e-government site that provides various online services and transactions, allowing individuals to save time and decrease paperwork. In addition, Hong Kong has several “clever” buildings with intelligent features, including energy-efficient lighting and automatic temperature management systems.

Hong Kong’s current focus on further developing its smart city credentials—rightly and importantly—aims at improving urban living through innovative technology, including the Internet of Things (IoT), Big Data, and Artificial Intelligence (AI). However, suppose the goal of relevant stakeholders is to create a fully connected, efficient, and sustainable urban environment for Hong Kong citizens of all ages. In that case, the experience of Hong Kong children during Covid-19 suggests that addressing the “digital divide” should receive more attention and become a part of a more holistic equation bolstering Hong Kong’s ‘smart city’ successes.

Such initiatives might include further expenditures in high-speed internet network building, including through public-private partnerships and subsidies to internet service providers to encourage increased coverage in areas of the city where the “digital divide” is most prominent. The Hong Kong government may also subsidise skills training for people who lack basic technological knowledge, ensuring that everyone has the essential abilities to engage in the digital world fully. In addition, to increase digital accessibility, the Hong Kong government could provide more subsidies or support programmes that allow those families with children who cannot currently afford internet or mobile data costs to access these services at a low price. Lastly, the Hong Kong government could, through collaboration with non-profit organisations and social enterprises already active within vulnerable communities, fund digital literacy and other bespoke education programmes to help children and young people with limited access to digital resources to become more informed and effective users of digital technologies.

What do Hong Kong children need to get through the 5th Coronavirus wave?

Appeared in Sing Tao Daily on 14 March 2022.

“Since the first Coronavirus cluster was reported in December 2019, few families with children in Hong Kong have managed to avoid the impact of economic lockdowns, travel restrictions, and school closures on their everyday lives. Despite a common perception that children have been barely affected by the global Covid-19 pandemic, the potential consequences of the public health measures on children’s well-being are particularly concerning due to their lifelong and irreversible character. Amongst others, children’s advocacy groups worldwide have highlighted the possible adverse and longstanding effects of threats to children’s mental health, an exacerbated learning crisis, and increased child poverty.

The normative framework of the United Nation’s Convention on the Rights of the Child (1989) enshrines opportunities for children to express their life experiences and share their views on growing up in different social environments. As part of an ongoing study funded by the Faculty of Social Sciences at Lingnan University, researchers have worked with selected primary and secondary schools to distribute an online survey among students aged between 10 and 12 years. This age range is commonly characterised as “middle childhood” and was chosen as it is widely understood as a stage when children start to spend more time away from their family and more time in school, with friends, and engaging in other activities in the community. Being forced to spend more time in lockdown and away from school may, therefore, risks interfering with the normal development not only of children’s academic ability but also of their identity and ability to form their own experiences of the world around them.

Specifically, the Covid-19 survey examines how Hong Kong children cope with the changing circumstances across different life domains, including their school life, time use, and relationship with family and friends during the Coronavirus pandemic. Although strictly preliminary and not fully representative of the Hong Kong child population at this point, the findings based on roughly 182 responses collected between October 2021 and January 2022 give some insights on how children in Hong Kong – beyond the immediate requirement to be shielded from possible infection – may be better supported to weather the storm of the recent outbreak of the Omicron subvariant of the Coronavirus disease.

Although none of the child respondents directly experienced an infection with the Coronavirus within their immediate family, almost half of the children (45.2%) reported that there were times when they had to be in their home all day because of the Coronavirus and had to be very careful because somebody in their immediate family was considered at high risk of getting very ill if they got infected with the Coronavirus (47.6%). More than one-third of children (37.6%) either “agreed a lot” or “totally agreed” that their relationships with friends were negatively affected during the Coronavirus, while more than half (55.0%) stated that they became closer to some members of their family. While most children received sufficient information about the Coronavirus through the daily news, social media, and family members, four out of ten (40.3%) children did not feel “fully protected” from the Coronavirus in Hong Kong. More than half (52.7%) “agreed a lot” or “agreed totally” that they are “very afraid” about the Coronavirus.  

Besides, around one-third of children (34.0%) were not satisfied with the changes in their student life because of the Coronavirus situation. More than one-third of children (36.1%) did not have their own room to study at home, and around one out of ten (10.2%) reported not possessing the necessary video equipment, such as cameras and microphones, for video classes. Moreover, more than half (53.0%) of children reported frequent problems with their Internet connection at home during online teaching. More than one-third of students did not fully agree that they could manage their learning time effectively (36.9%) and did not fully agree that they knew how to get help when they struggled to understand their online classes (40.3%). Indeed, close to half of the surveyed children (47.3%) did not agree that they successfully managed to continue learning from home. At the same time, around 3 out of 4 children (75.2%) “agreed a lot” or “agreed fully” that it was their responsibility as a student to learn what they need to know from online classes. It may not be surprising that many children in Hong Kong continue to describe their lives as very “stressful” under these circumstances.

It has been widely reported that Hong Kong families with children have faced additional financial pressures since the beginning of the Coronavirus pandemic. According to our findings, only around 4 out of 5 children (79.7%) reported that they “always” had enough food to eat during this period. No less than two out of ten children (22.4%) stated that they are “very worried” about the financial situation of their family since the Coronavirus outbreak – i.e., on a scale from 0 (“not at all worried”) to 10 (“very worried”). When asked how happy they are with their overall life during the Coronavirus period, around 2 out of 10 children (18.9%) reported that they are “not happy at all” – again measured on a scale from 0 (“not happy at all”) to 10 (“completely happy”). 

It is worth stressing again that the above data were collected before the onset of the 5th Coronavirus wave in Hong Kong. The timing of data collection raises concerns that some of the pressures that Hong Kong children have faced may only be bound to worsen in the weeks and months to come. It also suggests that listening carefully to the voices of Hong Kong children should become more, rather than less, important in designing an effective strategy to deal with the indirect social impacts since the arrival of the Omicron variant in Hong Kong. Boosting employment opportunities for parents, providing effective after school services for children, and cash and in-kind support for e-learning at home (including IT equipment, IT literacy, etc.) remains a top priority for the Hong Kong government amidst the 5th wave of the Coronavirus pandemic.”

Dealing with “Covid social risks” requires social innovation as part of Hong Kong’s crisis response

Appeared in Sing Tao Daily on 6 September 2021.

Please follow the link for the full article.

“For centuries, governments worldwide have been preoccupied with helping citizens absorb various risks and contingencies that threaten their livelihoods and well-being. In response to these social risks, governments have taken on more responsibility to provide for basic needs and promote more cohesive, productive, and sustainable progress of societies. Most recently, the global Covid-19 pandemic presented a critical public health crisis. But, at the same time, societies across East Asia have also been witnessing a related wave of complex socio-economic changes that produced a new set of social risks. In a recent research project with colleagues from Taiwan and South Korea, I have labelled them as “Covid social risks”, broadly falling in five critical areas: physical health, employment and income, skills and knowledge, care, and social relationships.

First and foremost, the risk of sudden job loss has risen amidst Covid-19 due to strict
lockdown and social distancing measures. Many workers and salaried employees had no choice but to take unpaid leave due to closing businesses or heightened care responsibilities in the home. Even if they managed to retain a job, many individuals experienced a substantial loss of income, for instance, due to reduced working hours.
Related to these employment and income risks, some workers experienced a sudden shock as markets no longer required specialised skills, e.g., aeroplane pilot or a travel guide. The pandemic also exacerbated this knowledge crisis since it hindered children’s educational progress due to school closures and the adoption of online learning. In Hong Kong, more than three out of four parents of kindergarten and primary school students raised concerns about their children’s online learning progress.i
Social distancing and lockdown measures created uncertain care burdens as parents,
particularly women, faced the need to care for their children or family members at home as schools and social service facilities closed due to infection concerns. The increased care burden has been particularly striking for single parents or households with family members with long term care needs.

Finally, the general public also faced psychological stressors, such as the disruption of
regular routines and separation from family and friends, which triggered different negative psychosocial responses, including anxiety, stress, and even depression. Researchers discovered similar patterns in previous crises, but the current decline in mental health in Hong Kong is particularly alarming. For example, a recent paper for the academic journal Psychiatry Research suggests that 65 per cent of Hong Kongers reported poor mental health due to increased loneliness during the Covid-19 pandemic.ii

The above “Covid social risks” are potential threats to all. Yet, the intensity of experiencing them varies across different societal groups. Take me as an example: once Lingnan University switched to online, and later hybrid, instruction due to the health concerns for our students, I found it relatively easy to complete my daily tasks in the home environment. I found myself as part of a privileged group of salaried employees that could convert face-to-face jobs with the help of the latest digital networking and teleconferencing software.

Consequently, my working hours and income were hardly affected. Naturally, not everyone was in the same lucky position. Essential workers were unlikely to
lose their jobs in the pandemic since they provided vital goods or services needed in daily life. Yet, their occupations were not suitable for being transformed into non-face-to-face work, meaning there was a higher possibility for them to suffer from infection with Covid-19. Indeed, service and sales workers were among the ‘frontline’ occupation groups with the most Covid-19 incidences in Hong Kong and elsewhere in East Asia. Other groups of ‘essential’ workers that suffered a similar fate were healthcare workers, drivers and transport workers, cleaning and domestic workers, and public safety workers.iii

It is now well-known that the pandemic most severely hit the Hong Kong accommodation, food, and entertainment sectors. However, even within these industries, service and sales workers faced the highest risk of unemployment without any fault of their own. Despite the Hong Kong government’s provision of economic stimulus and wage subsidies through the newly introduced Employment Support Scheme (ESS), Hong Kong experienced an increase in the number of low-income households. According to official Government statistics, the total number of Hong Kongers receiving financial support through the Comprehensive Social Security Assistance (CSSA) increased by merely 5,000. This suggests that the Hong Kong
social safety net was ill-prepared to cater for many individuals affected by the Covid-19

How, then, should the Hong Kong government respond to newly emerging “Covid social
risks”? How should it alleviate the rising inequality between the different groups of society that were affected so differently throughout the local Covid-19 outbreak?
We still have much to learn. Yet, besides the need to strengthen the existing social safety net and active labour market policies, Covid-19 taught us that more bottom-up social policy initiatives are required. Notably, such approaches will focus on families, schools, and communities as they are crucial in solving the social care, social relationships, and skills retention crises. In addition, the Covid-19 mitigation phase in Hong Kong requires diversity and creativity that is most commonly associated with the notion of “social innovation.” Consequently, the Hong Kong government should facilitate co-production and collaborative governance that engages citizens directly. A successful and forward-looking Covid-19 response in Hong Kong and East Asia cannot rely solely on the lessons from the past.”

i Lau, E. Y. H., & Lee, K. (2020). Parents’ views on young children’s distance learning and screen time during COVID-19 class suspension in Hong Kong. Early Education and Development, 1-18.
ii Tso, I. F., & Park, S. (2020). Alarming levels of psychiatric symptoms and the role of loneliness during the COVID-19 epidemic: A case study of Hong Kong. Psychiatry Research, 293, 113423.
iii Lan, F. Y., Wei, C. F., Hsu, Y. T., Christiani, D. C., & Kales, S. N. (2020). Work-related Covid-19 transmission in six Asian countries/areas: a follow-up study. PloS one, 15(5), e0233588.

The International Survey of Children’s Well-Being shows Hong Kong children are stressed and dissatisfied with how they use their time

Appeared in Sing Tao Daily on 8 June 2020.

Please follow the link for the full article (in Chinese).

“Researchers from the School of Graduate Studies and the Department of Sociology and Social Policy at Lingnan University took part in the third wave of the International Survey of Children’s Well-Being (ISCWeB), which joined research teams from 35 countries and territories around the globe. For Hong Kong, the research surveyed 10- and 12-year old children from 17 primary and 16 secondary schools, which were chosen randomly from a list of non-special primary and secondary schools. The resulting representative sample captures the voices of 1,522 Hong Kong children and adds to a unique international data set, which includes the views of close to 129,000 children in total.

The international data shows that Hong Kong is generally low in the international rankings of children’s well-being. Nevertheless, there are some areas where Hong Kong children excelled, including their relationships with friends and classmates. The surveyed Hong Kong children also, on the whole, felt safer at school and in their communities than their peers in other East Asian societies such as South Korea and Taiwan. At the same time, however, Hong Kong children considerably lagged behind internationally in terms of their views on their appearance, as well as their feeling of being listened to by their parents, teachers, and other adults in their communities. Not least, the new data is confirmation, yet again, that children in Hong Kong are stressed and dissatisfied with how they use their time. 

A look at some of the baseline figures presents findings that may not be too surprising at first glance. More than one in two Hong Kong children reported that they spent time doing homework or studying (53%) and using social media (51%) every day when they are not at school. A majority of Hong Kong children also stated that they watch TV (43%) or play electronic video games (37%) every day. Compared to these figures, only around one-in-three (34%) Hong Kong children reported that they have time to rest, while around one-in-four (26%) said that they spend time relaxing, talking or having fun with their family every day. A majority of Hong Kong children further reported that they spend their time helping around the house (34%), playing or spending time outside (32%), playing sports or doing exercise (29%), or doing extra classes or tuition when not at school (24%) much less frequently (‘only once or twice a week’).  

The research also finds that the proportion of children who rated their overall satisfaction with how they use their time outside of school as very low stood at 12% (on a scale from 0-10). This figure is higher compared to other East Asian societies such as Taiwan (10%) and South Korea (8%), and particularly high compared to most Western nations. In Finland, for example, only 2% of surveyed children rated their satisfaction with how they use their time as very low. While half of all 10-year-olds in Finland stated that they are ‘totally satisfied’ with how they use their time (50%), the corresponding figure in Hong Kong stood merely at one-in-four (25%).

Given the above findings, it may also not be surprising that more than one-in-four (27%) Hong Kong children reported very low agreement with the statement that they feltcalm over the last two weeks (on a scale from 0-10). More worryingly still, almost half (49%) of Hong Kong children reported a high agreement with the statement that they felt stressed over the last two weeks. In addition, a total of 15% of all surveyed 12-year olds in Hong Kong reported very low agreement with the statement that they are good at managing their daily responsibilities. Not least, less than one-in-four children fully agreed that they have enough choice about how they spend their time (23%).

Again, it is through international comparison that we can see how exceptional some of these figures genuinely are. While the share of Hong Kong children who reported that they are stressed frequently is comparable to those in Taiwan (46%) and South Korea (46%), the reported figures in countries such as France (37%), Finland (30%) and Norway (28%) were considerably lower. Only about 4% of all twelve-year-olds in Finland and Norway, and about 10% in Germany, Taiwan and South Korea, disagreed that they are good at managing their daily responsibilities. Whether one-in-three (South Korea and Germany), two-in-five (Finland and Taiwan), or one-in-every-two children (Norway), the agreement with the statement that they have enough choice about how they spent their time was considerably higher in all of these international cases compared to Hong Kong.

The question of how Hong Kong children use their time has been the subject of high profile advocacy campaigns from international organisations in the past. At the same time, researchers have amassed more and more evidence that demonstrates that children’s dissatisfaction with their time use, their negative feelings of stress, and their perceived lack of autonomy in making choices about how they may use their time are significant factors in explaining children’s overall life satisfaction and psychological well-being. The fact that Hong Kong children are still falling behind their peers in other parts of the world in all of these regards suggests that the Hong Kong government, together with parents and other stakeholders, should reconsider this issue seriously. A new strategy is needed to device a holistic and culturally sensitive policy approach by which Hong Kong children may finally be able to join the mainstream of the international community.”