Home Technology Will China’s new internet restrictions really protect minors?

Will China’s new internet restrictions really protect minors?

A tranche of new measures, coming into effect on January 1, 2024, may only serve as a sticking plaster for a much bigger issue

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In 2019, China introduced the world’s most restrictive gaming reduction measures over fears young people were becoming addicted. Now the government is setting its sights on the internet as a whole. Dao Insights’ Miranda Jarrett explores whether these restrictions will actually improve the lives of China’s youth

In October 2023, Premier Li Qiang signed off on a new set of measures designed to create a safer online environment for China’s youth. The regulations, China’s most comprehensive child internet safety laws yet, will task educators and technology companies with tackling data privacy, cyberbullying, and, of course, the dreaded wangyin (internet addiction). Part of this will be through the implementation of built-in minor protection features in apps, websites and programs that help educate youngsters and restrict their usage. The new rules come into effect on 1 January 2024.

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One can readily sympathise with China’s fears about the shifting internet landscape. Since 2019, when gaming addiction was still the government’s prime target, short videos on platforms like Douyin (the Chinese TikTok) and Kuaishou have become ubiquitous and, for many, are becoming the go-to form of entertainment. Around the world, parents, individuals and governments are rightfully concerned about the addictive nature of social media, as well as its potential for facilitating the exploitation of vulnerable people.

Below the surface of China’s ambitious plan, however, lurk different but interlocking fears about the suzhi, or “quality”, of the next generation. State media has likened gaming to opium, a drug whose voracious use in Qing-era China is tightly associated with the “century of humiliation” that began with the First Opium War. The argument goes that internet addiction, if let loose upon the population, could create an unmotivated and ineffective workforce that cannot contribute to the country’s development, from the perspective of the political leadership.

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This framing could risk overlooking a much bigger threat: a long-term youth mental health crisis created by a hyper-competitive education system and compounded by economic woes. It is highly contested whether excessive gaming or internet usage constitute addictions comparable to drug or alcohol addiction. In fact, some theorise that the internet is less a cause and more a symptom of Chinese young people’s problems, serving as “a sanctuary where troubled youth seek solace and emotional escape”, as anthropologist Jie Yang puts it. Even if the internet is the core contributing factor to young people’s poor mental health, can the new restrictions really prevent excessive and detrimental gaming and internet usage?

This winter marks four years since the first gaming restrictions were put in place and another two since they were further tightened. Last year, a state-associated gaming regulator declared that the policy had effectively solved the problem of gaming addiction. Putting self-reported data to one side, the jury is still out on whether these kinds of measures really work. One study led by researchers from the University of York and published by the journal Nature in August found “no credible evidence” for the reduction of “excessive playtime”, which is classed as spending more than four hours per day, six days per week playing video games, as a result of China’s gaming curfew.

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The authors of this paper theorise that the “highly federated” nature of the games industry could have led to ineffective policy. Individual game providers are responsible for recording the real age of players and restricting their gameplay accordingly. Enforcement is then inconsistent across providers. “Top-down regulation may be able to secure compliance from large corporations who have the resources to effectively identify and police their player bases and have become prime targets of political intervention in China. It is less clear how compliance is easy to affect and police for thousands of small companies,” the research paper states.

The same issue is likely to come up when these measures are applied to all apps and platforms, but on a much bigger scale. Meanwhile major stakeholders in charge of China’s super-apps, like Tencent, Sina and ByteDance, are likely to comply as best they can to avoid retaliations. But loopholes will become rife in the hands of smaller app developers.

As has been the case with the gaming restrictions so far, under-18s will inevitably find workarounds. Logging into an adult’s social media account or lying about their age when they sign up are easy ways minors can evade controls on what content they can see and how long they can browse for. But, if the self-reported data from China’s gaming industry holds any water, these kinds of measures may be enough to nudge habits in a slightly healthier direction. The ongoing mental health crisis, however, will eventually need to be tackled head-on.

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