A multinational survey on parent-child relationships across China, Japan, South Korea and the United States has found that young Chinese students are given electronic gadgets and smartphones at a younger age than their US and Japanese counterparts.

The survey, conducted by an international education firm, found that about 70% of Chinese primary and middle school pupils own smartphones. Only South Korean students owned more, with more than 87% having smartphones or tablets.

The corresponding smartphone penetration rates for American and Japanese students was 61.4% and 42.1% respectively.

Xinhua noted in a related report that in first and second-tier cities and affluent rural areas, students were under subtle peer pressure if they were yet to have a smartphone, while others were showing off their latest devices.

Chinese parents often give their old phones to their children when they upgrade to newer models. Students use smartphones mostly to search for answers to exams and homework, using popular apps that aggregate exam papers and their suggested answers.

Some starting early romantic relationships not only rely on their smartphones to keep in touch, but also look for dating tips.

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Students not wearing glasses belong to the absolute minority on Chinese campuses. Photo: Xinhua

Using electronic devices too early and for too long has also led to deteriorating visual health among students.

Some healthcare professionals have pointed out that prolonged screen time makes children more vulnerable to myopia or astigmatism and will increase their risk of developing severe eye diseases such as glaucoma, cataracts and macular degeneration.

The percentage among primary pupils with 600 degrees of myopia or above, categorized as high myopia, and those with 200 degrees of astigmatism or above (high astigmatism) has surged to nearly 8% and 15%, according to 2015 data from the Chinese Ministry of Health.

This has triggered a call from Chinese President Xi Jinping for a nationwide awareness campaign to promote visual health and reduce screen time.

Watchdogs have been quick to mandate gaming and social networking app operators like Tencent to impose a daily time limit and parental control over how long children can use a gadget. However, many children soon find ways to get around and restrictions on their screen time.