China Restricts Gaming

Suffering child in dark room

By Yehudis Gold

While China is better known for a host of troubling practices, including persecuting minorities, restricting journalists, and limiting religious practice, its approach to video games is getting positive reviews.

The Communist country has been dramatically curbing video game use among its youth, a pastime which it says has become addictive and destructive for students, an assessment western experts agree with.

The state-owned Economic Information Daily hailed the move, referring to widespread gaming as “opium for the mind” and “electronic intoxicants,” and China’s state-run Xinhua News Agency explained the government is trying to “effectively protect the physical and mental health of minors.”

This can generously be referred to as nannying at its best, or more unflatteringly, dictatorial fiat at its worst; surprisingly, U.S. writers and media are less condemning of this legislation than one might expect.

While historically averse to government restriction on freedoms and activities, a dawning realization as to the damaging impact of digital technology has given rise to headlines like a Wall Street Journal headline, “Did China Get It Right on Videogames?” or Reuters’ “Oh, That’s an Idea,” with American parents weighing in on the move.

And while citizens of democratic nations likely don’t approve the method, perhaps they do the motive.

It’s hard to find anything good to say about dictatorial, oppressive societies. But what do you say when they happen to be right about something?

Hamodia’s readership hardly needs secular thinkers and experts to form its opinions and values around digital technology, yet the rising tide of anti-tech parents, teachers, researchers, and even politicians is interesting to note. And telling.

China’s Ban

China’s ban restricts videogames to three hours a week for minors under 18, with one hour allowed on Fridays, Saturdays, and Sundays between 8 and 9 p.m.

Monday through Thursday are blackout days, presumably because children are expected to be preoccupied with schoolwork.

Of course, legislation like this is rife with opportunity for youth to beat the system by registering fake accounts as adults, but the National Press and Publication Administration, a branch of the Chinese administration responsible for regulating media, will require all users to register their names and government-issued ID in order to play.

Rather than be penalized by the government for noncompliance, videogame companies like Tencent Holdings use facial recognition technology to ascertain that individuals playing are legally allowed, and automatically kicks off players who have played for certain periods of time. The company issued a statement following the restrictions, saying it “strictly abides by and actively implements the latest requirements from Chinese authorities.”

And it’s probably wise that they have gotten on board, because the People’s Daily, the Communist Party’s primary publication, made clear to readers that there is no room for compromise on the issue, and that the government will be “ruthless” in enforcement.

The decision caused stocks for videogame companies to decline as the industry can now expect a decrease in spending from minors. In general, China’s online games industry is one of the world’s largest, so the punch is particularly powerful.

This isn’t the first time Chinese authorities have cracked down on gaming. In 2018, the government put a prolonged pause on its issuing of licenses for videogames (costing companies like Tencent an estimated $1 billion in lost revenue). And in 2019, it banned minors from playing between 10 p.m. and 8 a.m. In addition, youth between 16 and 18 were not allowed to spend more than 400 yuan a month (equivalent to about $60) on the industry.

One of the Chinese government’s justifications for the decision is its new focus on cultivating morality in young people. The government claims that the videogame industry is motivated by profit at the expense of public good and childhood well-being. In fact, the administration has gone further than just limiting gaming — it has ensured that celebrities who model bad behavior completely disappear from the internet.

It is unlikely that the People’s Republic of China made this move casually. Chances are the central government has data and analyses that show a net economic benefit for the country with this implementation. It’s not hard to imagine a formidable workforce and pool of ingenuity developing out of China’s youth if this policy remains in place. In a culture that already prioritizes education, emerging talent may be that much more focused on cultivation and productivity.

The Research

American parents may find themselves somewhat envious of their Chinese counterparts that have been relieved by a central authority who has willingly assumed the role of bad cop in this national parenting effort. Western values of personal liberty, individual responsibility, and market ingenuity (as opposed to government intervention) preclude centrally planned solutions such as this one, but there are efforts underway nonetheless in the form of awareness campaigns and educational tool distribution to combat what many are coming to see as a damaging activity for children.

(getty images)

The OECD (Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development) cites some revealing data from the U.K. that 35% of 8- to 11-year-olds have their own smartphone while 47% of that age group have their own tablet. (Those numbers rise to 83% and 50% respectively for the 12 to 15 category.) Seventy-four percent of 8- to 11-year-olds spend 10 hours a week playing videogames and another 13 hours a week on the internet. (And that does not include an additional 13 hours a week of broadcast media as well.) The numbers for all these categories increase for the older bracket.

It’s no wonder that the impact of all this digital tech has become the study of countless research efforts. Technology is remaking a generation and no one is totally sure what will come out on the other end, although some variables are beginning to crystalize.

(Just to get a sense of the magnitude of the research, over the past 20 years the term “social media” has been mentioned in over 10,000 published journal articles, not to mention other words like internet, video games, etc.)

“Youth are, more than ever, needing to be tethered to their devices,” says Doreen Dodgen-Magee, Psy.D., in an interview with Hamodia. Dr. Dodgen-Magee is a psychologist who has written extensively on this issue. She has argued that, with over 11 hours of screentime per day for the average U.S. adult, digital addiction should be a diagnosable dependency.

“[W]e know that social media use is not only correlated with increases in depression and anxiety for youth but that it can actually cause them,” she says, pointing to research out of the University of PA.

“In two nationally representative surveys of U.S. adolescents in grades eight through 12, and national statistics on [self-inflicted] deaths for those ages 13 to 18, adolescents’ depressive symptoms … and suicide rates increased between 2010 and 2015, especially among females,” write Jean M. Twenge and her team in the Journal of Clinical Psychological Science (November 2017), noting that teens who spent more time on social media and electronic devices were more likely to report mental health issues as compared to teens who spent more time enjoying activities like sports, exercise, reading, and attending religious services.

Even Meta’s internal research reveals a chilling landscape of teen girls consumed with self-doubt and insecurity because of the platforms controlled by this company.

In a sweeping exposé this September, a Wall Street Journal investigation yielded insider documents and research material funded by the social media giant that show the company is aware of the significant harm its platform causes young people.

A company presentation highlighted how 13% of British Instagram users and 6% of American users who reported self-destructive thoughts traced the desire to kill themselves to the platform.

Yet the company has consistently touted the safety of its platforms and has downplayed any concerns about its dangers.

“The research that we’ve seen is that using social apps to connect with other people can have positive mental-health benefits,” Mark Zuckerberg, co-founder and CEO of Meta, told Congress in March 2021 in response to questions about children’s mental health.

Instagram was singled out among social media platforms in the research because of its high reliance on images which, the data say, exacerbate many primary areas of social comparison like wealth and appearance. The fallout — an increase in depression and eating disorders. Focus groups with teen girls, a demographic which seems hardest hit by social media use, revealed how being flooded by photo-ready imagery all the time causes many users to engage in self-loathing and develop dissatisfaction with various aspects of their lives.

A plethora of social, emotional, educational, and even physical aspects of day-to-day life are touched and tainted by digital technology’s long arm, much of which extends beyond the scope of these pages:

Communication skills and relationships of all kinds have been affected and altered. Mark Bauerlein, Professor of English at Emory University, tells Hamodia that youth are dramatically affected by their digital tech habits.

He says how young people, outfitted and preoccupied with iPhones and tablets from as young as 10, are becoming less adept at silent fluency (in a nod to anthropologist Edward T. Hall who labeled nonverbal expressive human attributes “the Silent Language”), which develops from in-person interactions. The inability to read people’s body signals, posture, eye movements, and general nonverbal cues is a lifelong deficit that will make all relationships more difficult to navigate.

Decreased attention, a gluttony of information (some of which is inaccurate), yet a scarcity of in-depth analysis, and sedentary behaviors are some of the consequences that have obstructed education and learning.

The New York Times bestseller list is loaded with popular books on the subject by various experts isolating variables like the inability to appreciate silence and self, to the hostile algorithm takeover of our shopping and searching behaviors.

Research has even uncovered seemingly negligible behaviors that are affected by heavy technology use, including everything from disturbed sleep patterns to poor posture (giving rise to terms like “smartphone slouch” and “text neck”).

The Mayo Clinic notes that excessive screentime can cause headaches, concentration issues, watery, dry, itchy or burning eyes, as well as blurred vision and sensitivity to light, a phenomenon that the American Optometric Association refers to as digital eye strain or computer vision syndrome.

The National Sleep Foundation claims that the artificial blue light that devices emit delay sleep patterns, contributing to more cases of insomnia.

“The more electronic devices that a person uses in the evening, the harder it is to fall asleep or stay asleep,” the foundation writes, and since so many young people bring their phones to bed with them (OECD data), it’s not difficult to see how dysregulated sleep patterns can have an impact on learning and general wellbeing.

And while posture may seem to be the least of our collective societal concerns, Harvard Professor Amy Cuddy wrote in The New York Times, “Your physical posture sculpts your psychological posture,” where she argues that slumping over devices causes a decrease in positivity, productivity, assertiveness, and self-confidence.

Looking Forward

Professor Bauerlein is scathing in his condemnation of the digital age and the mischief it has wrought on young people.

“I have a book coming out in January entitled The Dumbest Generation Grows Up: From Stupefied Youth to Dangerous Adults,” he says in an interview with Hamodia. “It compiles lots of information on what has happened to the millennials as they have hit age 30. They are bitter, disgusted, disappointed, and pessimistic. They aren’t going to church, they don’t love their country, and they aren’t getting married and having kids. Or rather, rates of doing so on these measures are way down.”

He says this is primarily due to excessive device use. “When they were 15, we let them plunge into screens, dive into Facebook and texting, and didn’t make them read books, learn some history … go to church or temple, care about their country … and listen to or read intelligent news sources.”

Because of that, we now have a generation ill-equipped to handle what he calls “the ordinary difficulties of adulthood.”

“Fifteen years ago, our millennial created a utopian space in his bedroom, with laptop, phone, game player, and all the other tools of social media and cheap entertainment. ‘Why can’t the world be just as satisfying?’ he asks now. He doesn’t understand; he never grew up. A billion-dollar industry in Silicon Valley hooked him on the screen (web designers hired psychologists who were experts at grabbing eyes and ears), and now the thrill is gone. The commitments that might give meaning to his life — family, country, G-d — aren’t available to him. He feels betrayed, and he’s right. A small set of oligarchs made billions of dollars off of his screen habits, and a clerisy of pseudo-intellectuals such as writers at tech outlets and teachers who thought the screen was really, really cool, gave them cover. Now we see the result of this perverse social experiment. It’s only going to get worse.”

Dr. Dodgen-Magee is less apocalyptic in her conclusion.

Recognizing that, for many segments of society, digital technology is here to stay, she encourages adults to be both “empathic and caring” when broaching the subject of screentime with young people. “If we approach them with shame and blame, they will shut down and be driven more deeply into the digital world for comfort and relief,” she says. Instead, she urges parents and educators to help kids disentangle slowly and to give them tools to moderate their digital tech use for years to come.

While the Orthodox-Jewish community has additional and vital concerns regarding screen use, digital content, and its global impact on our youth than those mentioned here, and while the community’s solutions, ambitions, and approaches diverge from broader society on this issue, it is gratifying to know that, despite the sense that we are sinking into a more universally digitized world every day, there is a prickle of awareness that, as a society, as a world, we may want to recalculate.

And watch out for China’s formidable workforce in 2031.

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