HONG KONG (AP) — As China’s Lunar New Year festivities approach with promises of banquets and red envelopes stuffed with money, kids are yearning for something more: an extra hour to play online each day.
Just one hour.
For years, Chinese authorities have tried to control how much time children spend playing games online to combat “internet addiction.” They claim they’ve been successful in reducing the problem, but they’d rather not take any chances.
In 2019, the authorities limited minors to playing 90 minutes a day on weekdays and prohibited them from playing between 10 p.m. and 8 a.m. In 2021, they issued even more severe restrictions: Minors can play online for one hour a day and only on Fridays, weekends and holidays. For eight months, game approvals were suspended.
Lunar New Year, the biggest traditional holiday in China, which this year falls from January 21 to 27, will give them four extra hours to play online.
Many parents praised the restrictions, even as their children threw tantrums. Social networks and game companies have implemented or strengthened the “youth mode” in their apps with the aim of protecting minors. They include features that limit usage, control payments, and display content that is appropriate for minors. Real name registration and even facial recognition access have been implemented for some popular games to prevent cheating.
In November, more than a year after stricter gaming controls were introduced, a government-affiliated industry group, the Gaming Industry Group Committee, released a report stating that the problem of gambling addiction Juvenile gaming was “basically settled,” even as the three-hour weekly Friday-Sunday limit remained in effect.
Overall, according to the Gaming Industry Group report, more than 75% of children in China were gambling online for less than three hours a week, and most parents said they were satisfied with the new restrictions.
A September report by gaming market intelligence firm Niko Partners found that the number of underage gamers dropped to 82.5 million in 2022 from its peak of 122 million in 2020 as a direct result of Chinese regulations.
Beijing resident Zhong Feifei said her 11-year-old daughter has spent less time playing games since the restrictions came into effect. “My daughter stopped playing online during the prohibited time.”
Zhang has encouraged her daughter to play with other children or to spend more time doing other activities.
“Even during public holidays, he doesn’t spend too much time playing anymore because he found something else to do, like playing with our dog or with other toys,” she added.
The Gaming Industry Group report stated that the “major loophole” in gambling restrictions is that parents help their children to evade controls. The harsh restrictions have also sparked an underground market where minors can buy unsupervised “altered” games or rent adult game accounts.
Zhong also enjoys playing online, but says she avoids doing it when she’s with her daughter and instead does it outside the house to set a good example.
Parents are the most important factor when it comes to curbing gambling addiction, said Tao Ran, director of the Adolescent Psychological Development Base in Beijing, which specializes in addressing the problem.
According to Tao’s calculations, restrictions and “youth mode” settings in apps have helped counter addiction to online gaming among younger children who may not know how to avoid them. High school kids tend to have more resources and often manage to find ways around restrictions, such as convincing their parents to allow them to use their accounts or figuring out passwords to turn off “youth mode.”
With so many people stuck at home during the pandemic, children were spending excessive time online, Tao said.
“The pandemic has contributed to further addiction to the internet. I have not seen a reduction in the number of minors that are sent to our center each month to contain addiction,” added Tao, whose center treats an average of 20 minors each month with severe internet addiction.
“For many of these children who are addicted to gambling, we found that their parents also frequently gamble,” Tao said. “So these kids look at their parents and think it’s okay to spend a lot of time playing because their parents do too.”
As the crackdown has eased, regulators have once again approved new games.
In February, NetEase, the country’s second-largest game company, received a license for Fantasy Life, a role-playing simulation game from Nintendo. However, the company’s partnership with Activision Blizzard is due to end on January 23, after which popular titles such as Overwatch and World of Warcraft will be withdrawn from the Chinese market until Blizzard finds a new domestic partner to publish its games.
The first batch of imported games in 18 months was given the green light in December, when China’s largest game company Tencent received approval for Riot Games’ tactical action game Valorant and multiplayer Pokémon Unite, a game of combat arena online.
Not all parents agree with the government’s tough strategy.
Huang Yan, a mother of a 12-year-old daughter and a 7-year-old son from Beijing, said online games can foster teamwork and help children find friends.
“I am not against children having access to the internet, games or social networks, since this is a general trend and it is impossible to stop it,” he said. “It is better to allow them to deal with these activities and intervene appropriately if they cannot be controlled, and guide them towards other interests.”
Associated Press journalist Yu Bing in Beijing contributed to this report.