HONG KONG (AP) — As China’s week-long Lunar New Year holiday approaches with promises of holidays and red envelopes full of cash, kids have something else to look forward to — an extra hour of online gaming every day.
For years, Chinese authorities have sought to control the amount of time children spend playing online games, to combat “internet addiction”. They claimed success in curbing the problem, but they didn’t take any chances.
In 2019, authorities restricted minors to play 90 minutes per day on weekdays and banned them from playing between 10pm and 8am. Fridays, weekends and public holidays. Approvals for the game stalled for eight months.
The January 21-27 Lunar New Year holiday, China’s biggest festival, will give them four extra days for online gaming.
And many parents praised these restrictions, even with their children’s tantrums. Social media and gaming companies have set up or enhanced Youth Mode settings on their apps to protect minors. They include features that limit usage, control payments, and display age-appropriate content. For some popular games, real-name registration and even facial recognition gates have been implemented to prevent workarounds.
In November — more than a year after the introduction of stricter game controls — a government industry group, called the Game Industry Group Committee, released a report declaring that the problem of gaming addiction among minors had been “essentially resolved”, even with three hours per week. Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays remain in effect.
Overall, the Game Industry Group report said that more than 75% of minors in China play online games for less than three hours a week, and most parents are satisfied with the new restrictions.
A report released by gaming market intelligence firm Niko Partners in September found that the number of young gamers fell to 82.6 million in 2022 from a peak of 122 million in 2020 as a direct result of China’s regulations.
Beijing resident Zhong Feifei said her 11-year-old daughter has spent less time on games since the restrictions took effect. “My daughter gave up playing online games during the off-limits time,”
Zhang encouraged her daughter to play with other children or spend time in other activities.
“Even during public holidays, she doesn’t spend as much time playing anymore because she found something else to do, like playing with our dog or other toys,” she said.
The gaming industry group’s report said the “biggest loophole” in gaming restrictions was parents helping their children bypass controls. The strict restrictions have also spawned an underground market where minors can buy “cracked” unmoderated games, or rent adult game accounts.
Zhong also enjoys playing games online, but said she avoids doing so when with her child, and leaves home to play in an effort to set a good example.
Parents are the most important factor when it comes to reducing gaming addiction, said Tao Ran, director of the Beijing Adolescent Psychological Development Base, which specializes in treating the problem.
Tao estimates that restrictions and “youth mode” settings on apps have helped counter online gaming addiction among younger children, who may not know how to find workarounds. Kids in middle school or high school tend to be more resourceful and find ways around limitations. This could mean convincing their parents to let them use their accounts, or figuring out passcodes to turn off Youth Mode.
With so many people confined to their homes during the pandemic, Tao noted, kids were spending huge amounts of money online.
said Tao, whose center treats an average of 20 children with severe Internet addiction each month.
“For many of these children with gaming addiction, we find that their parents play games a lot,” said Tao. “So these kids, they look at their parents and they think it’s okay to spend a lot of time playing, because their parents do too.”
With the easing of strict measures, organizers have resumed approving new games.
In February, NetEase, the country’s second-largest game company, acquired the license to Fantasy Life, a role-playing simulation game from Nintendo. However, the company’s partnership with Activision Blizzard is set to end by January 23, which will see successful titles like Overwatch and World of Warcraft pulled from the Chinese market until Blizzard finds a new local partner to publish its games.
December brought the green lights for the first batch of imported games in 18 months – with China’s largest gaming company, Tencent, securing approvals for Riot Games’ tactical shooter Valorant and multiplayer online battle arena game Pokémon Unite.
Not all parents agree with the government’s harsh approach.
Huang Yan, a mother of a 12-year-old daughter and a 7-year-old son in Beijing, said online games can promote teamwork and help children make friends.
“I am not against minors accessing the Internet, games or social media, because this is a general trend and it is impossible to prevent them,” she said. “It is best to allow them to confront these activities and intervene appropriately if they are unable to control themselves, directing them towards other interests.”
Associated Press news associate Yu Ping in Beijing contributed to this report.