Children in China are waking up this morning to the first weekend of drastic new rules limiting the amount of time allowed for online gaming.
- Children in China are now limited to three hours per week for online gaming
- Some parents have argued against further state controls
- There are nearly 700 million online gamers in China
Under 18s are now forbidden from online games from Monday to Thursday, and can spend just one hour on each of Friday, Saturday, Sunday and public holidays playing.
Authorities say the ban is designed to protect the physical and mental health of children.
But not everyone is convinced.
Yan Zhiming, a father from Nanjing in eastern China, questioned the necessity of the rules.
“Most parents arrange enrichment classes for their kids,” he said, referring to activities like sport and music lessons.
“[So] the little ones don’t have much time to play [online].”
Mr Yan said it was up to parents to take responsibility.
“It cannot be denied that some kids have addictions to games, but I believe they may inherit the bad hobby from the parents,” he said.
No need for state controls, say some parents
China’s new restrictions have also sparked debate among Australian parents.
Ken Yin, a Sydneysider who moved to Australia from Guangdong province in 2006 and is raising three kids, said there were already ways for parents to manage their children’s online gaming habits.
“My kids are playing online games. We have software that can control them,” Mr Yin said.
“You can set up the parental controls on Microsoft, Google and Apple devices and systems, like how long you can stay logged into the computer and what games you can play on the phones.
Hugh Davies, an expert in mobile gaming from Melbourne’s RMIT University, stressed the influence of parents and urged them to act as role models.
“It is also very important for parents to reflect on how much time they spend in front of screens from the TV to the laptop to the mobile phone,” Dr Davies said.
“Not just as in setting examples for their children but for their own health too.”
China’s battle against a ‘spiritual opium’
Gaming addiction, or gaming disorder, has troubled China for years and some state-run media have labelled online games a “spiritual opium”.
The China Internet Network Information Centre said more than 30 per cent of Chinese children in 2018 were suffering from gaming disorder, which was recently recognised as an illness by the World Health Organization.
In addition to time limits, China’s new rules also require all online games to link to a state anti-addiction system, while gaming companies are banned from providing services to users without real ID registrations.
Molly Zhao, a self-employed single mother from Sydney, said she was quite fond of China’s approach.
She said it was a constant battle to stop her daughter from playing online games for hours on end.
“Usually, I am very busy at work and cannot be constantly checking whether she is studying or playing games,” Ms Zhao said.
“I understand and feel sorry for my daughter. She feels lonely during the COVID lockdown and can catch up with classmates and friends via those games.
“But sometimes she could keep playing games for two or three hours. It is too much.”
Ms Zhao said she eventually reached an agreement with her daughter to delete games apps from their devices.
“Then my daughter can play her games, and I don’t need to monitor it.”
Dr Davies said there were also benefits in online gaming and that was sometimes underestimated.
“I have had parents confess to me here in Australia that they have turned off the mains power to stop their kids from gaming online at night,” he said.
“But it is also important to remember that games offer more than escapism and entertainment for kids.
Impacts on a multi-billion-dollar industry
The new rules had an immediate impact on China’s lucrative online gaming industry.
Tencent and NetEase, two major gaming companies in the country, saw their share prices fall this week after the rules were announced.
But analysts believe there will be limited long-term effects on gaming giants.
According to China’s Gaming Industry Report, there were total sales of more than 150 billion yuan ($32 billion) from 667 million Chinese players in the first half of 2021.
Tencent said players aged under 16 accounted for only 2.6 per cent of its gaming income in China.
Online gaming companies have begun launching new methods to ensure the latest rules are abided by.
But it has been reported that some Chinese children are using fake IDs, while some illegal websites are selling software that can randomly generate adult ID numbers.
Tencent told the ABC it was using new technology to protect children.
“Tencent strictly abides by and actively implements the latest requirements from Chinese authorities,” a spokesperson said in a statement.
Tencent recently rolled out facial recognition technology and an algorithm that identifies underage players based on their time, how long they play, and their behaviours in the game.
Despite assurances from the company that facial recognition technology would only be used for the common good, there are concerns that a sophisticated surveillance system could be built that will be able to feed algorithms even more information.
Ethics experts say it is a space that needs to be watched.