People are searching for porn while stuck at home during the coronavirus .

Boston Children's Hospital

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Offices and factories were shut down. Residential compounds were under partial lockdown. But life went on: As people hunkered down at home during the spread of the coronavirus epidemic in China, those looking to kill time have been turning to games, sports… and, apparently, pornography.

Searches for the word “maopian” (a Chinese nickname for porn that roughly translates as “hair movie”) surged on China’s biggest search engine over Lunar New Year, according to numbers obtained from Baidu Index. That coincides with the beginning of an extended national holiday that the Chinese government put in place to help contain the epidemic.

People likely didn’t get very far just searching one word, so they tried other terms as well. Numbers from Baidu show that searches for porn-related keywords also increased, including “Europe and US all free to watch” and “A movie” -- another Chinese nickname for porn. A search by Abacus on Baidu’s search engine found that some of these keywords do lead to websites hosting adult material. And some of those sites can even be accessed in mainland China, where porn is banned.

Search for “maopian” initially plunged at the start of the Lunar New Year -- a time when families traditionally gather to feast and celebrate. The numbers picked up soon after and stayed strong. (Picture: Baidu Index)

The quest for porn didn’t seem to wane after the holiday ended in early February. The search volume for maopian remained high, in contrast with previous months when numbers would occasionally shoot up over the weekend and die down again later.

Although workers were supposed to return to work after the holiday, many businesses have adopted a flexible approach, allowing employees to work from home. Demand for office apps were so high that some servers buckled under the pressure.

A child wearing a face mask rides on a scooter next to closed shops in an empty shopping and residential area of Sanlitun in Beijing on February 26. (Picture: Roman Pilipey/EPA-EFE)

As the coronavirus spreads around the globe, public health researchers are now looking into the effectiveness of China’s heavy-handed approach in stemming the disease, such as home quarantines. And believe it or not, some think that data on porn habits might provide crucial hints.

John Brownstein, chief innovation officer at the Boston Children’s Hospital, tweeted that he and his colleagues looked at Baidu searches for pornography to evaluate how well people in China adhered to government advice to stay home. He reasoned that adult entertainment is something that people only view at home, making it a potential indicator.

While online pornography is officially banned in China, some are still acessible inside the Great Firewall. In a country where the internet population is more than twice the US population, busting porn is far from easy. It’s such a Herculean task that authorities even offered a reward for citizens to flag illegal material.

Baidu declined to comment on the spike of porn-related searches. But the company stressed that it has been taking serious measures to clamp down on “harmful content,” relying on both humans and AI to screen out offending material. The company told us it removed more than 53 billion pieces of harmful information last year, and nearly half of the removals were related to porn.