Sinosphere: A Toddler Dies as Her Mother Checks Her Phone, and China Wrings Its Hands


BEIJING — A video showing an S.U.V. running over a toddler while her mother appeared distracted by her phone has prompted hand-wringing on Chinese social media about the perils of overusing smartphones.

Surveillance cameras captured a slow-moving S.U.V. hitting a 2-year-old girl who had veered into its path. Her mother, trailing behind on a street in a provincial Chinese city, had been glued to her phone and appeared not to notice that the vehicle had started moving. By the time an ambulance arrived, the girl had died.

The girl was hit by an S.U.V. while her mother was engrossed in her smartphone. Video by eNanyang 南洋商报

In China, as in the United States and elsewhere, people are clicking, texting and shopping on their smartphones in droves, and many do so while on the move.

About 710 million people in China, or 92 percent of its internet users, go online via their smartphones, more than twice as many as in 2012, government data shows. About a quarter of those use only their smartphones.

The toddler’s death last month, in Yueyang, in the southern province of Hunan, has led to an outpouring of anger on Chinese social media about the dangers of being obsessed with one’s phone. Even a local government agency weighed in last week, calling for people to cut back on smartphone use.

“Heart-wrenching!” the Shandong provincial prosecutor’s office wrote on Weibo, China’s version of Twitter. “Put down your phone. Save the children!”

The death of Tutu, as the girl was identified in Chinese news reports, is just the latest example of how “distracted walking” can threaten public safety.

In August last year, a 2-year-old boy in the central province of Henan died after being struck by an S.U.V. near a shopping mall while his mother was engrossed in her phone. And in April, another 2-year-old boy with a phone-addled mother was run over and killed in the eastern province of Anhui.

Liu Qinxue, an expert on smartphone addiction at Central China Normal University in Wuhan, said the Yueyang accident could serve as a warning of the risks of using an otherwise benign, useful device. .

Such use “has existed for a long time, and people normally do not think about the potential dangers it might bring,” Professor Liu said. “There’s not enough discussion or awareness.”

Officials in China have documented and publicized the risks of calling or texting while driving.

In 2014, for example, the Shanghai police said that calling or texting while driving had caused nearly 30 percent of 690 fatal automobile accidents between January and October of that year, according to a report in China’s state-run news media. The city’s police installed high-definition traffic cameras to identify motorists who use smartphones while driving, and offenders are fined 200 renminbi, or around $30, and penalized through a points system.

In March, a lawmaker from the central province of Hubei proposed in the national legislature that drivers who use phones while on the road be criminally charged.

But policy makers in many countries have paid far less attention to the problem of “distracted walking,” according to a 2015 study in the Journal of Traffic and Transportation Engineering. The study added that pedestrian-crash data was not yet detailed enough for researchers to determine a link between distracted walking and safety problems.

In Hong Kong, a semiautonomous Chinese territory, subway stations have signs that warn commuters not to stare at mobile phones on escalators. Officials in Seoul, the South Korean capital, announced recently that the city would install outdoor signs that warn pedestrians of the dangers of texting while walking.

But such signs are rarely, if ever, seen in mainland China.

Analysts say that smartphones dominate people’s lives because they offer seemingly unlimited stimulation.

“The presence of devices that are always on and always on you, that are always stimulating and offer a constant ‘feed’ of stimulation, have led us to a new kind of psychological state: ‘I share, therefore I am,’ ” said Sherry Turkle, a professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology who studies the relationship between humans and digital devices.

Professor Turkle said in an email that a declining capacity for solitude and self-reflection had given rise to a dependence on smartphones and created a need for phone-free “sacred spaces.”

“Talk to your co-workers, talk to your family,” she said. “Never bring a phone to a meal. No phones in the car. No phones at meetings or in classrooms. We can find our way back to each other.”

Many Chinese social media users have echoed that sentiment since the death of the 2-year-old in Yueyang.

“Head-down tribes, it’s time to lift your head now,” one commenter wrote on Weibo, using a popular Chinese nickname for smartphone obsessives.

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