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    Starved of Affection at Home, Young Chinese Seek Out ‘Digital Parents’

    Many young Chinese feel unable to emotionally connect with their parents. So they’re turning to online influencers for the intimacy they crave.

    Fan Xiaotong, a middle school student from Shanghai, likes to share everything with her parents. Whenever she feels stressed about a math test, or eats a tasty snack, the 13-year-old will pull out her phone and send a message to her mom and dad.

    The couple she is contacting, however, aren’t really her biological family. In fact, Fan, who spoke to Sixth Tone using a pseudonym to protect her privacy, doesn’t even know their real names. They are a pair of parenting influencers that she follows on China’s version of TikTok, Douyin.

    Fan has become a massive fan of the influencers; so much so that she has come to view them as her “digital parents.” For the teenager, the couple embody a positive, affectionate style of parenting — the kind she has never experienced at home.

    She knows that in reality the couple barely know who she is, and they often don’t respond to her messages. But Fan doesn’t care. She just loves the feeling of sharing her feelings with the couple, and the thrill of occasionally getting an encouraging reply.

    Fan is far from alone. There has been an increase in the number of parenting influencers on Chinese social media in recent months, but the audience for this content often isn’t parents looking for advice; it’s children captivated by the influencers’ open, caring attitudes.

    Many of these young fans feel unable to connect with their own parents, and come to see the influencers as an alternative source of familial affection. Some, like Fan, even go as far as to start viewing the influencers as their digital parents, pouring their hearts out to them in message after message.

    In most cases, these online relationships are relatively harmless. But many in China are concerned about the potential safety risks the trend poses — and worry what the growing demand for digital parents says about the state of the nation’s households.

    Digital love

    Fan is a typical digital parent fan. The middle schooler says she feels emotionally distant from her real parents, who divorced several years ago. After the split, she lived with her father for a while, then moved in with her mother.

    However, Fan still feels awkward around her mom after their long separation. And she often doesn’t feel like her mother really listens to her. Once, Fan says she tried to open up about her struggles with anxiety, but felt her mother didn’t take her seriously. For a long time, she felt starved of intimacy.

    Then, she discovered the influencers. The couple blew up on Douyin in late 2023 by posting cute videos that roleplay common parent-child interactions: a visit to the supermarket, a long-distance video call, or discovering that a child hasn’t finished their homework. The twist: The couple always choose love over traditional, disciplinarian parenting methods.

    In one clip, which went viral in November, the couple dance joyfully under a street light while a text flashes up with a message for their child. It’s a sincere apology for pressuring them to try and get a safe, stable civil service job.

    “We aren’t capable of giving you a care-free life, so we’ve always hoped you’d find a secure job,” the message reads. “But seeing your downcast eyes … we might have done something wrong.”

    Like many videos of this genre, the clip isn’t supposed to be taken as real. The couple explicitly state that they are selling an idealized vision of parenting. But the sentimental tone and messaging resonated with many in China.

    “I feel like a stray dog who’s been picked up from the roadside and given a huge kiss,” one user commented.

    By early 2024, the couple had over 1 million fans on Douyin, and their feed began to be flooded with comments from users venting their frustrations, sharing their traumatic experiences, and expressing the wish that the couple could be their parents.

    Some, like Fan, took things further, and actually adopted the couple as their digital parents. A few even started to refer to their real parents as “cousin parents” — a way of implying that they actually feel closer to their digital family.

    Fan never asked the influencers to be her digital parents. She simply started messaging them regularly, always addressing them as mom and dad. Even though the couple are too busy to reply to every message, their brief messages are always kind and supportive, and Fan says the exchanges lift her mood.

    “It’s like finding a new path to obtain the emotional support you can’t get in real life,” she says, before adding wistfully: “In your heart, you always long for a better answer.”

    Growing pains

    As time has gone on, the digital parent trend has continued to gain steam. A flurry of other middle-aged couples have piggybacked on the success of Fan’s “parents,” setting up similar channels sharing an idealized vision of parent-child relationships. And they’re also finding an audience.

    Zhang Peixian, 35, has also adopted a couple of parenting influencers as digital parents. Like Fan, she views the practice as a form of consolation: Interacting with the influencers helps make up for the lack of attention and support she received as a child.

    Her childhood home was not a happy place. Zhang says her father regularly beat her mother, and she never developed close bonds with either of them. That’s why she finds the influencers’ joyful smiles in their videos so touching. “In my entire life, I’ve never seen my mom smile like that,” she says.

    For Chinese parenting influencers, the outpouring of emotion their content often triggers from young fans can be hard to deal with. Wu, a 43-year-old mother of two sons, began blogging about her family life a few months ago, and has since acquired over 70,000 followers on the lifestyle app Xiaohongshu.

    Many of these followers have made her their digital parent, and Wu now receives a dozen private messages from her “digital kids” every day. Many of them are children struggling to cope with mental health struggles and distressing family situations.

    Their stories often shock Wu: One said their father only allowed them to take showers at designated times, and beat them if they disobeyed him; another said their parents were pushing them to study long hours every day, even though they had been diagnosed with a congenital heart disorder. On several occasions, Wu has received messages from fans saying they planned to kill themselves.

    “The emergence of ‘digital parents’ is a very sad thing for society, since people only resort to a parent in the cyber world when their real parents are not fulfilling their roles,” says Wu, who only gave her surname for privacy reasons.

    Wu replies to all the messages she receives whenever possible. She believes that her fans are often reaching out as a way to find the strength to make positive changes in their lives. “Changes are likely to happen if they are listened to and they receive a reply,” she says.

    For Yu Zehao, a psychotherapist based in the central Chinese city of Wuhan, digital parents are on the rise because they fill a common hole in many children’s emotional lives. While many Chinese parents often focus on teaching their children discipline, digital parents offer affirmation and emotional support.

    “We are disciplined to be an individual fitting into what society demands, like a cog in a machine,” Yu says. “This similarly affects the concept of parenting, as parents believe that if their children don’t comply with certain rules, they may be miserable in the future.”

    But Yu is concerned about the trend: Though digital parents can have a consoling effect, especially for young people dealing with severe emotional challenges, there is a risk that such digital relationships could undermine their sense of reality.

    “It’s like a meal replacement kit,” says Yu. “They can help us when we’re on a diet and transitioning to a healthier lifestyle, but they shouldn’t replace regular meals in the long run — they’re not nutritious enough.”

    Wu, the blogger, says she is more worried about whether influencers are qualified to handle all the highly emotional messages they receive from fans. As a parent herself, Wu feels that she is relatively well placed to play the role of digital parent, but many other influencers aren’t in that position.

    Then, there are the risks children face when establishing a close relationship with a stranger online. What if the digital parent isn’t who they say they are?

    In late February, a parenting influencer with more than 100,000 followers on Xiaohongshu suddenly had their account suspended, sparking a flurry of anger and speculation. It’s still unclear what happened, but many fans claim that the blog posts — which are written from the perspective of a father raising a teenage daughter — were actually written by the daughter.

    But Fan, the 13-year-old, seems unfazed by the idea that her digital parents might be imposters. “What matters is they provide me with a certain emotional benefit,” she says.

    Zhang, meanwhile, says she understands that much of the parenting content on social media isn’t realistic: She describes it as a “fictional movie.” But now that she is married herself, she views the scenes of familial harmony as an ideal to aspire to.

    “If I become a parent one day, I want to be just like them,” she says.

    Additional reporting: Huang Yang.

    (Header image: Visuals from VCG and Douyin, reedited by Sixth Tone)