Parents hail Chinese rules on ‘unhealthy’ children’s play

Li Zhanguo’s two children, aged eight and four, 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 watch their screen time closely, they can play online games for three to four hours each time,” he said. -he declares.

Not anymore.

Like many other parents, Li is happy with the new restrictions on online gaming companies that went into effect earlier this month. They limit kids to just three hours a week of online play time – one hour between 8 p.m. and 9 p.m. on Friday, Saturday, and Sunday most weeks.

The restrictions are a tightening of rules set in 2019 that banned children from playing at night and limited them to 90 minutes of play time most days of the week.

The 90-minute restrictions, however, have not allayed authorities’ concerns about online gambling addiction.

Experts say it is not clear whether such policies can help prevent online gaming addiction, as children may simply be engrossed in social media. Ultimately, 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 restrictions reflect growing concern over gambling addiction among children. State media called online games “spiritual opium”, alluding to times past when drug addiction was rampant in China.

“Adolescents are the future of the motherland, 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 released along with the new rules, alluding to a campaign by Chinese President Xi Jinping to cultivate a healthier society for a more powerful China.

Government reports estimated in 2018 that one in 10 Chinese minors were addicted to the internet. Centers have sprung up to diagnose and treat these problems in children.

Much of the responsibility for ensuring children play only three hours a day rests with 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. the country.

Companies like Tencent 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 identity.

Companies say they can limit access to underage users using real name registrations. In some cases, sporadic checks will also be performed during the game with the use of facial recognition, and users will be kicked out of the game if they fail those checks, they say.

Regulators have ordered game companies to enforce the new regulations and tighten the scrutiny of their games to ensure they don’t include harmful content such as violence.

Chinese regulators have also set up a platform that allows the public to report game companies they believe are violating restrictions on online play hours for children. It allows Chinese ID card holders to report violations and provide evidence, effectively giving the public the power to vet game companies like Tencent and NetEase.

It is not known what penalties companies can incur if they do not strictly enforce the regulations.

Even if such general policies are enforced, it is also unclear whether they can prevent online addiction, given that gaming companies design their products to make gamers stay online and come back for more, said Barry Ip, Senior Lecturer at the University of Hertfordshire who has researched gambling and addiction.

And kids can just switch to short videos and other apps if they’re 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 in the evening 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.

It is the responsibility of parents to apply this mode on their children’s devices.

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”.

Online gaming is just one of the many potential distractions, said Liu Yanbin, mother of a 9-year-old girl in Shanghai.

“Many parents attribute their children’s levels of suffering to gambling, but I don’t agree with that sentiment,” said Liu Yanbin. “As long as the kids don’t want to study, they’ll find a way to play. Games might be limited now, but there are still short videos, social media, and even TV series. “

Instead of relying on government intervention, parents need to take responsibility for limiting the time spent on games, social media or the internet, experts say.

“Emphasis must be placed 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.

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 pay attention to 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. “

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Associated Press researcher Chen Si in Shanghai and video producer Caroline Chen in Beijing contributed to this story.

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