Li Zhanguo’s two children, ages 4 and 8, don’t have their own smartphones, but like millions of other Chinese children, they are no strangers to online gaming.
“If my children get their hands on our mobile phones or an iPad, and if we don’t closely monitor their screen time, they can play online games for as long as three to four hours each time,” he said.
Like many other parents, Li is happy with new government restrictions that limit children to just three hours weekly of online gaming time — an 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 2019 rules that banned children from gaming overnight and limited them to 90 minutes most weekdays.
Experts say it’s unclear if such policies can help prevent addiction to online games, since children might just get engrossed in social media instead. Ultimately, they say, it’s up to parents to nurture good habits and set screen time limits.
The new rules are part of a campaign to prevent kids from spending too much time on entertainment that communist authorities consider unhealthy. That also includes what officials call the “irrational fan culture” of worshipping celebrities.
The technology restrictions reflect growing concern over gaming addiction among children. One state media outlet has called online games “spiritual opium,” an allusion to past eras when addiction to the drug was widespread in China.
“Adolescents are the future of the motherland, and protecting the physical and mental health of minors is related to the vital interests of masses, and in cultivating newcomers in the era of national rejuvenation,” the Press and Publications Administration said 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 such problems.
Under the new regulations, the responsibility for ensuring that children play only three hours a day falls largely on Chinese gaming companies like NetEase and Tencent, whose wildly popular Honor of Kings mobile game is played by tens of millions across the country.
Companies have set up 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 do sporadic facial recognition checks while people are playing, and they’ll be booted out of the game if they fail.
Regulators also ordered gaming companies to tighten examination of their games to ensure they don’t include harmful content such as violence.
And they've set up a platform that allows people who hold Chinese ID cards to report on gaming companies they believe are violating restrictions.
It’s unclear what penalties companies may face if they fail to enforce the regulations.
And even if such blanket policies are enforced, it is also unclear whether they can prevent online addiction, given that game companies design their products to entice players to stay online and come back for more, said Barry Ip, a senior lecturer at the University of Hertfordshire in England who has researched gaming and addiction. Children may just switch to other apps if they are forced to stop playing games.
“There are many forms of digital platforms that could potentially hold a young person’s attention just as well as gaming,” Ip said. “It’s just as easy for a young person to spend four hours on TikTok in the evening rather than play games if their time is uncontrolled.”
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, though they do have “youth mode” features enabling parents to limit what children watch and for how long.
Douyin and TikTok developer ByteDance announced recently that users under 14 in China will automatically be in youth mode and limited to 40 minutes a day on Douyin. They also won't be able to access the app between 10 p.m. and 6 a.m.
“Many parents attribute their children’s suffering grades to gaming, but I disagree with this sentiment,” said Liu Yanbin, mother of a 9-year-old daughter in Shanghai. “As long as children don’t want to study, they will find some way to play. Games may be restricted now but there’s always short video, social media, even television dramas.”
Tao Ran, director of the Adolescent Psychological Development Base in Beijing, which specializes in treating internet addiction, expects about 20% of kids will find workarounds for the rules.
“Some minors are too smart, if you have a system in place to restrict them from gaming they will try to beat the system by borrowing accounts of their older relatives and find a way around facial recognition,” Tao said.
The new rules, he said, are a “last resort.”
Instead of relying on the government to intervene, parents need to take responsibility for limiting time spent on games, social media or the internet, experts say.
“The focus should be made on prevention, for example, informing parents about how games function, so that they are in a better position to regulate the involvement of their children,” said Joël Billieux, a psychology professor at the University of Lausanne in Switzerland.
Li, the father of two young children, said he plans to arrange piano lessons for his daughter, since she has shown an interest in learning the instrument.
“Sometimes due to work, parents may not have time to pay attention to their children and that’s why many kids turn to games to spend time,” he said. “Parents must be willing to help children cultivate hobbies and interests so that they can develop in a healthy manner.”
Associated Press researcher Chen Si in Shanghai and video producer Caroline Chen in Beijing contributed to this story.
Zen Soo, The Associated Press