Last November a seven-year-old boy in HCMC had to be hospitalized after trying to imitate a magic trick on YouTube which taught viewers how to strangle themselves without suffocating.
The boy was found unconscious after strangling himself with his red scarf. He was saved in time, but other children who were seduced by such dangerous acts on social media were not so fortunate.
In September a 14-year-old girl died in China while her 12-year-old friend was badly injured when the two tried to imitate Chinese celebrity Internet chef Ms Yeah and heated up alcohol in a tin can to make popcorn.
According to various media reports, Ms Yeah compensated the girls’ families though she denied responsibility, claiming the kids had used a different and less safe method.Known as ‘Office Xiaoye,’ Ms Yeah has millions of subscribers on social media platforms Weibo and YouTube for her unconventional cooking using whatever tool she can find in her office.
In Vietnam, concerns have been voiced in recent years about the pervasiveness of sexual, violent and other lurid content to attract views and money that make cyberspace unhealthy, especially for young people.
Many experts have urged parents and schools not to leave kids to their own devices but teach them critical thinking and online skills to navigate the Internet.
Tuyet Anh, a mother of a six-year-old daughter, says her child’s latest favorite is the YouTube channel 123 Go. With over eight million subscribers, the channel features pranks and tips designed to evoke laughter such as fooling a friend into believing yoghurt is hair waxing cream and sneaking snacks into an expensive restaurant by gluing them to one’s legs with tape.
“Most stuff on YouTube is nonsensical and created chiefly to obtain gold and silver buttons and the likes,” Anh says.
Vietnamese channels tend to be silly and lack meaningful educational content, according to some experts. Some feature people who lisp and have strong local accents that young audiences quickly imitate before they can master standard Vietnamese pronunciation, worrying their parents.
Tho Nguyen, a channel also with over eight million subscribers and exaggerated acting and typical sensational tricks, is one such.
“This is something I don’t want my child to watch,” Hoang Linh Cam, a mother of a six-year-old boy, says, citing an episode in which Tho hangs from the ceiling to imitate a snack picking mechanism with a bunch of children pulling the rope and being rewarded with snacks afterwards.
More screen time than advisable
In worse cases, social media content can become malicious and even deadly. A notorious example is Yeah 1 Network’s cosplay channel Spiderman Frozen Marvel Superhero Real Life.
In 2017 the Department of Broadcasting, Television and Electronic Information under the Ministry of Information and Communications fined this channel for showing sexual and violent scenes featuring real actors donning costumes of popular characters such as Elsa, Batman and Spiderman.
Though they may not have originated on social media, dangerous games such as the “choking game” and “cinnamon challenge” have spread and become popular thanks to YouTube, and incite young people to try out acts that result in deaths.
According to Dr Assoc Prof Tran Thanh Nam, head of the Department of Education Sciences at the University of Education under the Vietnam National University in Hanoi, young people are often unaware of their own limits and behavior and consequently drawn toward such challenging games.
Between early 2018 and mid-2019 the broadcasting, television and electronic information department ordered Google to remove nearly 8,000 clips it considered “toxic” and illegal.
But at the end of the day both culture authorities and social media operators admit they simply cannot remove bad content as fast or easily as it is uploaded.
In the meantime social media is becoming more and more popular in Vietnam. According to social media agencies We Are Social and Hootsuite, last year 60 percent of the Vietnamese population used social media through mobile devices, with people aged 13-17 making up around 10 percent of total users.
YouTube and Facebook were the two most popular platforms. Children are also using the Internet and technological devices much more than is advisable.
Nam said a large number of children aged up to eight already have access to and are even allowed to own smart phones, tablets and other devices.
Children aged 8-13 spend an average of six hours a day consuming content and interacting on the Internet, while the number shoots up to nine hours for those aged 12-18.
Professional bodies such as the American Academy of Pediatrics prescribe no more than two hours of entertainment-based screen time per day for children, no TV or Internet access in their bedrooms, and zero screen time for babies under two.
The World Health Organization recommends no more than one hour of screen time per day for children under five, and zero for babies aged one or less.
While older platforms are notorious, a recent player, TikTok, with 12 million registered users in Vietnam last year, is also churning out a slew of dubious content.
In August a series of clips showing girls dancing and baring their breasts on TikTok drew fire, after a similar “naked challenge” in March.
For some, the best way to protect children from bad content is to offer them plenty of good options.
Nguyen Phuong Linh, director of the Management and Sustainable Development Institute in Hanoi, called for doing research into children’s needs and tastes to develop entertainment and education products.
The Ministry of Education and Training is currently developing a plan to increase online learning, which has become essential during the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic.
Besides going online for entertainment, Tuyet Anh’s daughter is also using an English-teaching app as part of her school curriculum and learning English through songs on YouTube. But the mother notes that children become bored with too much learning and simply “switch channels.”
For other parents, the key is to introduce the online world to children as late as possible and not whether there is good stuff in it.
Chi Huong, a mother of two, limits her kids to only two hours every Sunday and with her, and she reports any harmful content immediately.
“Reading books, playing sports or simply roaming in the streets is better than using an Ipad or a computer,” she reckons.
Cam, who also limits her child’s access to one or two 30-minute sessions every week, thinks that while staying offline may be better physically for children, the online world does have some advantages. Her boy can now search on his own for scientific content on YouTube about human inventions, dinosaurs and the universe, and acquire a lot of good knowledge.
As children are now spending much more time online because of the pandemic, UNICEF Vietnam has issued guidelines to help protect them against such dangers as harmful content, sexual predators and cyber bullying.
They include technical fixes such as setting up parental controls and strict privacy settings on online apps and games, developing trusting relationships and open communication with children and exploring online content together with them.
UNICEF recommends Common Sense Media for getting advice on apps, games and entertainment for children of various ages.