Parents praise Chinese rules aimed at making children play “unhealthy”

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Li Zhanguo’s two children, ages eight and four, do not have their own smartphones, but like millions of other Chinese children, they are no strangers to online games.

“If my kids get their hands on our phones or an iPad and we don’t closely monitor their screen time, they can play online games for three to four hours each time,” he said.

No longer.

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

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

However, the 90-minute restrictions did not allay government concerns about online gaming addiction.

Experts say it is unclear whether such guidelines can help prevent addiction to online gaming, as children may just immerse themselves in social media. Ultimately, it’s up to parents to maintain good habits and set time limits for the screen.

The new rules are part of a campaign to prevent children from spending too much time on entertainment that the communist authorities consider unhealthy. This includes what officials call the “irrational fan culture” of celebrity worship.

The restrictions reflect growing concerns about child gambling addiction. A state-owned media company has described online games as “spiritual opium”, alluding to a bygone era when drug addiction was widespread in China.

“Young people are the future of the motherland, and protecting the physical and mental health of minors ties in with the vital interests of the masses and encouraging newcomers in the era of national rejuvenation,” the Press and Publications Authority said in a statement, published together with the new rules alluding to a campaign by Chinese President Xi Jinping to create a healthier society for a more powerful China.

According to government reports, one in ten Chinese minors was addicted to the internet in 2018. Centers have emerged to diagnose and treat such problems in children.

The responsibility for ensuring that kids only play three hours a day rests largely with Chinese gaming companies like NetEase and Tencent, whose hugely popular Honor of Kings mobile game is played by tens of millions across the country.

Companies like Tencent have put in place real name registration systems to prevent young users from exceeding their gaming time limit and have incorporated facial recognition checks that require users to verify their identity.

The companies say they can restrict access to underage users by using the real name registrations. In some cases, sporadic face-to-face controls are also performed during the game, and users are said to be booted out of the game if they fail such controls, it is said.

Regulators have urged gambling companies to enforce the new regulations and scrutinize their games more closely to ensure they do not contain harmful content such as violence.

Chinese regulators have also set up a platform that allows the public to report on gambling companies they believe are violating restrictions on children’s online gaming times. It enables Chinese ID card holders to report violations and produce evidence, effectively giving the public power over police gambling companies like Tencent and NetEase.

It’s unclear what penalties companies face if they don’t strictly enforce the rules.

Even if such blanket guidelines are enforced, it’s also unclear whether they can prevent online addiction, as game companies design their products to entice gamers to stay online and come back for more, said Barry Ip, a senior lecturer from the University of Hertfordshire did research on gambling and addiction.

And kids can easily switch to short video and other apps when they’re forced to stop playing.

“There are many forms of digital platforms that could potentially grab young people’s attention as well as games,” said Ip. “For a young person, it is just as easy to spend four hours on TikTok in the evening as playing games when their time is out of control.”

Short video apps like Douyin, the Chinese version of TikTok, are very popular in China and do not have the same restrictions as games, although they have “Youth Mode” features that parents can use to restrict what children see and for how long.

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

Tao Ran, director of Beijing’s Adolescent Psychological Development Base, which specializes in treating internet addiction, believes that around 20% of children will find remedy for the rules.

“Some minors are too smart. If you have a system that prevents them from gambling, they will try to beat the system by borrowing accounts from their elderly relatives and finding a way to bypass facial recognition, ”Tao said.

The new rules are a “last resort”.

Online games are just one of many possible distractions, said Liu Yanbin, mother of a 9-year-old daughter in Shanghai.

“Many parents attribute their children’s suffering grades to playing, but I disagree,” said Liu Yanbin. “As long as children don’t want to learn, they find a way to play. Games may be restricted now, but there are always short videos, social media, and even television dramas. “

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

“The focus should be on prevention, for example informing parents about how games work so that they can better regulate their children’s involvement,” says Joël Billieux, professor of psychology at the University of Lausanne.

Li, the father of two young children, said he plans to arrange piano lessons for his daughter because she has shown an interest in learning the instrument.

“Sometimes parents may not have time to look after their children because of work, and so many children turn to games to pass time,” he said. “Parents have to be willing to help the children cultivate hobbies and interests so that they can develop healthily.”

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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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