Science and technology, Social policy | Australia, East Asia

7 February 2022

China’s efforts to tackle ‘gaming addiction’ are not unique to China and go back more than a decade – policymakers need to ask more fundamental questions, Xinyu Zhao and Julian Sefton-Green write.

China’s well-publicised decision to tighten its control of children’s online gaming has become an object of suspicion, criticism, and even jealousy among some outside of China.

In the wake of the policies – which limit online gaming permission to just one hour per day for children under the age of 18, and only on Fridays, weekends, and public holidays – discussion of their limitations has been generally productive.

What is missing from this debate though, is context. China’s effort to address ‘gaming addiction’ has been a nearly 20-year-long process. Onlookers and policymakers considering this issue in their own countries cannot just see this development as new, out of the blue, or uniquely Chinese.

Rather, huge increases in online gaming among children are part of a global pattern. This trend has been seen in many other countries, including Australia, and a similarly global set of possible policy action exists to deal with this.

In the early 2000s, before personal computers became widely available to Chinese households, young people in China frequented Internet cafes to socialise online and play computer games.

Nearly two decades ago, in November 2002, minors were officially forbidden from entering any business site that offered ‘Internet access services’. The mid-2000s then saw the rapid growth of Internet use in China with increasing access to personal digital devices and services.

Accordingly, regulators shifted focus, urging online game operators to implement anti-addiction systems within their products to limiting children’s time spent playing. In 2007, a nation-wide initiative required online game developers to roll out anti-addiction systems and real name verification mechanisms in their product design.

More on this: Gaming policy in cyberspace

Since then, controls such as these have escalated, particularly in the face of the exponential growth of mobile gaming. Back in 2019, the allowed time for online gaming for children was reduced to one and a half hours per day on weekdays, introduced in tandem with limitations on children’s capacity to spend real money in-game.

Unsurprisingly, the efficacy of these regulatory measures has been challenged. Fake identification became commonplace, allowing young people to circumvent verification checkpoints in Internet cafes and online in the early days, and virtual private networks have been another popular option for those looking to bypass technological controls.

Even with facial recognition technology increasingly built into games in China, there have been reports in China of children even taking advantage of their less technologically savvy grandparents to gain access.

Clearly, the government having to take drastic steps to restrict online gaming access for children is not new.

While the strength of China’s policy on children’s online gaming might have no equal in any other country, the basic idea of policies designed to cope with ‘gaming addiction’ is not unique and does demand consideration from policymakers.

In the Republic of Korea (South Korea), for example, a ‘shutdown law’ was introduced in 2011 to bar children 16 years old and below from playing online computer games after midnight.

More on this: Unplugging from online addiction

Although the South Korean government has recently abolished the controversial policy, a ‘choice permit’ system has maintained for now. This allows children and their parents or legal guardians to request game permits to play within designated times. A similar curfew policy was once introduced in Thailand as early as 2003, and in Vietnam in 2011.

This issue is not restricted only to Asia, either. In 2018, the World Health Organization included ‘gaming disorder’ in its 11th edition of the International Classification of Diseases. A year later, the United Kingdom opened its first specialist clinic to treat young people’s gaming addiction. In Australia, advocacy for more regulations of addictive gaming products has also been on the rise.

As they watch these measures in China and elsewhere unfold, policymakers need to ask the more fundamental questions: Is ‘addiction’ a useful theory to explain daily Internet use? How does regulatory control impact addictive behaviours? Is policy action on this worth the potential negative consequences?

In other words, does or did it work? And where is the scientific evidence to support such policies?

One thing to consider is that while the limitation on online gaming for children is intended to be ‘family-friendly’, in the face of a declining birth rate in China, it may paradoxically create adverse impacts for working parents, particularly women.

Childcare is still largely considered a woman’s job in China. The clampdown on online gaming means potentially more time required for parental (usually a mother’s) care and company, which could further diminish young couples’ willingness to have more children and lead to women staying out of the labour market.

While it may be implausible to expect a similar approach to be taken in Australia, attempts like China’s to limit Internet use among children over the last two decades should trigger important discussions. Policymakers and game companies need to determine what their role is in children’s digital wellbeing, rather than focusing on simply ‘curing’ so-called ‘addiction’.

Otherwise, they risk being left with policies which, in attempting to look proactive on ‘addiction’, harm children’s wellbeing rather than actually addressing the root causes of this challenge.

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