How serious is the addiction to video games among Chinese youth? What exactly to the new gaming restrictions stipulate?
First of all, video games have become a popular form of entertainment. At the same time, there is a growing concern that excessive play may lead to harm for individuals and their families. Although the research on the topic of video gaming addiction is still emerging, many scholars and clinical scholars have conceptualized the pattern of excessive and compulsive play of video games as a type of behavioral addiction, which is expressed via symptoms similar to those that occur in substance-based addiction, such diminished control, psychological withdrawal, and impaired functioning due to excessive use.
Based on preliminary research, about 60% of adolescents in China play video games frequently, and 13% of them play more than two hours daily. There is a lack of epidemiological studies looking at the prevalence rates of problem video gaming or video gaming addiction among adolescents in China. One older study published in 2010, showed about 3.2 to 3.5% of adolescents in China had a problem with playing video games, including meeting certain criteria for problem gaming or video gaming addiction. Research using valid and updated measurement instruments for problem video gaming based on a representative sample is needed to provide an accurate estimate on how serious this problem is among adolescents in China. Nevertheless, problem video gaming or video gaming addiction is definitely a public health concern in China based on research reports and public and professional perceptions.
To your question on what exactly the new gaming restrictions stipulate, the most recent video gaming regulation states that people under 18 years old are limited to playing online games on Friday, Saturday, Sunday, and legal holidays for one hour per day between 8 and 9 PM. This is an update from the regulation policy issued back in 2019, which already set time limits on gaming, but did not limit gaming to just weekends and holidays. And at that time, there was also a limit of how much money minors could spend in a game. This regulation does not directly limit off-line video gaming. In short, this new update further limits the amount of time minors spend on online gaming.
Will the restrictions actually work?
This is a new policy, so we don't know yet. This is too short a timeframe to evaluate the effects of this policy. Personally, I do believe this new policy will restrict the access for many adolescents in terms of when they play, what they play, and the amount of time they play online video games.
What measures are being taken to ensure people do not try to circumvent the restrictions?
To my knowledge, following this new policy, all game developers and publishers need to ensure they're compliant with these restrictions by only providing access to minors at the specific times when they are allowed to play. In addition, online game developers and publishers need to implement a real name identification system to prevent underage users from logging onto games. Furthermore, this is not new but internet cafes, which provide a space with computers and internet for people to play video games, can only provide access to adults. IDs need to be checked for anyone trying to enter. I also think the new policy requests parents to cooperate with this regulation and not to allow their children to log onto a game using an adult's account.
What are apparent loopholes in the announced regulations?
One is that children can use adults' accounts to log into online games. They may use their parents' accounts, they may borrow other adults' accounts, or they could even buy a fake adult ID account via the Internet in order to log onto a game.
What would you say is the connection between problem gaming and adolescence and poor performance in school? What do existing academic studies tell us?
I published a study earlier this year that has examined the relationship between the amount of interactive technology (including video gaming and Internet use) for non-school purposes and school performance and academic outcomes. In this study, I found that using the internet and playing video games for non-school purposes for more than an hour a day on school days links to worse standardized test scores and worse cognitive assessment. I also found that children who spent more than an hour playing video games and/or surfing the internet for non-school related purposes had a higher rate of truancy and were more likely to lose concentration during class. However, at the same time, I want to point out that using the interactive technology (including video gaming) in moderation, which means less than one hour per day of combined internet, social media, and video games may improve cognitive development. In short, there could be some benefits of gaming in moderation as long as it's not excessive play.
Would you say that the connection is as simple as these restrictions would have us believe?
No. That's why the policy is further limiting the amount of time children play instead of just shutting down the video game play for all minors completely. It's still saying moderation in use could still facilitate a healthy and beneficial form of entertainment for children.
How is the Chinese public reacting to these new restrictions?
Based on my observation from public responses on social media, I definitely see parents supporting this new policy. For example, remote learning during the COVID-19 pandemic resulted in students spending even more time online. Many parents and teachers are concerned that children have a hard time regulating their online behaviors, such as playing video games excessively, which can have negative impacts on children’s learning and general well-being. In a technology-based learning environment, it is difficult for teachers and/or parents adequately monitor children’s activities, as multiple browsers, and windows make it easy for children to move across educational and entertainment platforms.
Following this policy, I expect to see positive responses from parents and teachers. However, I expect to see more empirical research to support the three hours per week limit or provide guidelines for adjustment. The three-hour per week limit might be too restrictive for adolescents who want to pursue a career as an esports player.
Are there better alternatives to a sort of simple draconian crackdown such as the one China has just implemented? What about the experience of addressing video game addiction in other countries?
Similar restrictions that limit or block access to online video games between specific hours in the day have also been employed by other countries, such as South Korea and Thailand. For those countries, this type of restriction policy has been one important piece of the prevention effort for problem gaming/video gaming addiction. That is to say, in addition to policy that restrict the amount of gaming for adolescents, other approaches and prevention efforts are necessary. For example, parents and teachers need to play an active role as well in regulating the amount of gaming their children engage in and helping their children to develop a healthy pattern of video game play. Those policies are important, but they should not replace the responsibilities of a parental supervision. Parents have a responsibility to supervise and monitor their children's video game playing or other technology use.
What do you see as the future of the gaming industry and of problem gaming within China after these regulations are fully enforced?
I feel optimistic about this policy because such practices should promote healthy and responsible gaming habits. Playing video games is not inherently a bad thing; video games can actually be a healthy form of entertainment. That said, regulation is important to facilitate healthy and responsible gaming habits. We learned the lesson from gambling regulation in some countries, including certain States in the U.S.. Gambling is a form of entertainment, but it can cause harm to people at the same time. As such, developing policies to regulate gambling participation and working with the industry to develop strategies that facilitate responsible gambling can be benefit for both the industry and the consumers, and public health as well. That's what we need for video game as well. In addition, policies and practices that facilitate responsible and healthy video gaming can also promote sustainable development for the gaming industry.
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