Li Zhanguo’s two children, aged 4 and 8, don’t have their own smartphones, but like millions of other Chinese children, they are familiar with online games.
“If my kids get their hands on our cell phones or an iPad, and if we don’t closely monitor their screen time, they can play online games for three to four hours each time,” he said. -he declares.
Like many other parents, Li is happy with new government restrictions that limit children to just three hours per week of online play time – one hour between 8 p.m. and 9 p.m. on Friday, Saturday and Sunday most weeks.
The restrictions, which took effect earlier this month, are a tightening of the 2019 rules that banned children from playing at night and limited them to 90 minutes most days of the week.
Experts say it’s unclear whether such policies can help prevent online gaming addiction, as kids might just be engrossed in social media instead. Ultimately, they say, it’s up to parents to maintain good habits and set limits on screen time.
The new rules are part of a campaign to prevent children from spending too much time in entertainment that Communist authorities consider unhealthy. It also includes what officials call the “irrational fan culture” of worshiping celebrities.
The technological restrictions reflect a growing concern about gambling addiction in children. State media called online gambling “spiritual opium,” a reference to times past when drug addiction was rampant in China.
“Adolescents are the future of the homeland, and the protection of the physical and mental health of minors is linked to the vital interests of the masses and the training of newcomers in the era of national renewal,” the Administration said. from the press and publications in a statement, alluding to a campaign by Chinese President Xi Jinping to cultivate a healthier society for a more powerful China.
Government reports in 2018 estimated that one in 10 Chinese minors were addicted to the internet. Centers have sprung up to diagnose and treat these problems.
Under the new regulations, much of the responsibility for ensuring children play three hours a day falls on Chinese game companies like NetEase and Tencent, whose hugely popular mobile game Honor of Kings is played by tens of millions of people across the country.
Companies have implemented real name registration systems to prevent young users from exceeding their game time limits and have incorporated facial recognition checks that require users to verify their identities.
In some cases, companies will perform sporadic facial recognition checks while people are playing, and they will be kicked out of the game if they fail.
Regulators have also ordered game companies to tighten the scrutiny of their games to ensure they don’t include harmful content such as violence.
And they’ve set up a platform that allows people with Chinese ID cards to report gaming companies they say are violating the restrictions.
It is not known what penalties companies can incur if they do not follow the regulations.
And while such general policies are enforced, it’s also unclear whether they can prevent online addiction, given that gaming companies design their products to keep gamers online and come back for more, a said Barry Ip, senior lecturer at the University of Hertfordshire in England who has researched gambling and addiction. Children can simply switch to other apps if they are forced to stop playing games.
“There are many forms of digital platforms that could potentially grab a youngster’s attention just as well as games,” Ip said. “It’s just as easy for a youngster to spend four hours on TikTok at night rather than playing games if their time is not being controlled.”
Short video apps such as Douyin, the Chinese version of TikTok, are extremely popular in China and are not subject to the same restrictions as games, although they do have “youth mode” features that allow parents to limit this. that the children watch and for how long.
“Many parents attribute their children’s levels of suffering to gambling, but I don’t agree with that sentiment,” said Liu Yanbin, mother of a 9-year-old girl in Shanghai. “Until the kids want to study, they’ll find a way to play. Games might be limited now, but there are always short videos, social media, even TV series.”
Tao Ran, director of the Beijing Adolescent Psychological Development Base, which specializes in treating internet addiction, expects about 20% of children to find workarounds.
“Some minors are too smart, if you have a system in place to prevent them from gambling, they will try to beat the system by borrowing accounts from their older parents and find a way to bypass facial recognition,” Tao said.
The new rules, he said, are a “last resort”.
Instead of relying on government intervention, parents should take responsibility for limiting the time spent on games, social media or the internet, experts say.
“The emphasis should be on prevention, for example by informing parents about how games work, so that they are better able to regulate the involvement of their children,” said Joël Billieux, professor of psychology at the University of Lausanne in Switzerland. .
Li, a father of two young children, said he was planning to organize piano lessons for his daughter because she showed interest in learning the instrument.
“Sometimes because of work, parents may not have time to take care of their children and that is why many children turn to games to spend time,” he said. “Parents should be prepared to help children cultivate hobbies and interests so that they can develop in a healthy way.”
Associated Press researcher Chen Si in Shanghai and video producer Caroline Chen in Beijing contributed to this story.