Ten million children in rural China go a full year without seeing their parents as adults leave for the nation's boomtowns in search of work, a report into the country's "left behind" generation has found.
The ‘White Paper on Left Behind Children’, published on Thursday by the Beijing Children's Mental Health Care Centre, said children of economic migrants left alone or with elderly relatives can suffer serious psychological problems.
"We may not be able to help the children directly, but through the impact of the media, the community and by mobilising resources, we can bring about indirect change," said Li Yifei, professor of psychology at Beijing Normal University and report author, in The Beijing Times. "These children need mental nourishment just as much as material donations."
The problem is particularly prevalent in China's poorest regions. Families in China's north-west were identified by the report as being most at risk followed by the south-west. The economically prosperous eastern coastal region was least affected.
The reports followed the tragic deaths of four siblings, aged between 5-13 years old, in the south-western province of Guizhou last Tuesday, which sparked widespread sympathy and outrage across China.
The nationwide survey asked 2,000 families living across the breadth of the country, from China's south-eastern industrial belt to its poorest provinces in the north, focusing on the rural areas of Guizhou, Shandong, Hebei, Gansu, Yunnan and Guangxi province.
There are an estimated 61 million children left behind in China. The report said 15.1 per cent of this group go without parental contact for an entire year. Some 4.3 per cent do not even receive a phone call in that time.
The report pointed to the growing cases of acute distress and anxiety among children who are forced to fend for themselves and live without critical parental nurture.
If children fail to receive a bare minimum of physical contact once at least once a week, their odds of developing mental illness are significantly increased.
The report also cited gender differences, claiming that signs of distress and anxiety were more prevalent in girls than boys, as they tend to be "more sensitive, cautious and introvert", and less able to express their trauma.