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China’s children are not the only ones addicted to video games

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The writer, a former head of the Number 10 Policy Unit, is a Harvard senior fellow

Is it really so extreme? China’s crackdown on video gaming by under-18s seems to signal another attempt by the communist regime to grip family life. But in the west, some of us parents would be mightily relieved if we had a “big brother” who was willing to play bad cop. Because we ourselves are failing.

When our youngest started primary school six years ago, I started to notice how many visiting children would ask “where’s the console?” Not only did their faces fall when our lack of gaming equipment was revealed, but some were reluctant to do anything else instead. Since then, phones have become consoles and lockdowns have made online games a part of social life. My desire to keep my child out of it feels increasingly hopeless.

Many loathe communism because it removes autonomy and exerts control. But what if we applied the same critique to Silicon Valley? I know the makers of Fortnite don’t want to invade Taiwan. But they do want to invade our kids’ bedrooms. Advertising-driven revenue models prompt social media and online games companies to seek more and more of our attention. When half of all five to seven-year-olds play video games, and the World Health Organization has classified gaming disorder as a medical condition, we should ask ourselves: who is controlling who? 

I don’t deny the brilliance of some of these products. One of our sons has learned chess by playing online with people all over the world. Many families only got through lockdown by entering fantasy worlds. Yet that only reinforces the point that video games are the “spiritual opium” described by Chinese state media, where choice is in fact an illusion. 

We can assume that Xi Jinping is not simply trying, as he asserts, to protect Chinese children from exhaustion. Coupled with a ban on private tutoring, the gaming restrictions look like an attempt to extend the surveillance state, purge Chinese youth of supposed foreign cultural corruption and address the demographic legacy of the one child policy, which threatens to make China old before it gets rich. Nevertheless, China has a history of worrying about tech addiction. In 2000, it banned gaming consoles and arcade player machines. In 2018, it imposed time limits on the mobile game Honor of Kings.

China’s leaders seem to believe that gaming is a threat to productivity and mental health, as well as their vision of a surveillance state. Yet in the west we are strangely quick to suspend judgment about the online world. We regulate gambling and working time, but we struggle to demand that gaming or social media companies set automated time limits, even though one recent study found English 10-year olds playing games for an average of two to three hours a day.

I don’t want to be naive. If we followed the Chinese lead and restricted gaming to three hours a week, I’m sure some children would simply switch to TV or social media or porn. But others might be saved from addiction, or relieved of peer pressure. Three years ago, when a 10-year-old boy needed bowel surgery after playing World of Warcraft for days without going to the toilet, his doctor said she was increasingly seeing children who are addicted to gaming, some of whom had dropped out of school. 

One response is to blame the parents. The mother of a 15-year-old Welsh boy, who missed a year of school after becoming addicted to Fortnite, was criticised as lazy. But most parents feel powerless — especially when schools send homework online and require children to check email, from where it’s a short flick to YouTube, Instagram or Call of Duty. 

Another is to hope that transparency will solve the problem. If we explain to children how algorithms work, we imagine they will be better armed to resist temptation. But even tech executives are trapped. One of the most electrifying moments in the documentary The Social Dilemma, is when Tim Kendall, an ex-Facebook and Pinterest executive, describes locking himself in the pantry to keep scrolling on his phone despite his two young children needing him.

In a survey by the Children’s Commissioner for England, many 10 to 16-year-olds reported that their friends’ behaviour became more aggressive and bullying when playing online. Some children admitted they felt addicted; others said they felt compelled to play longer than they wanted to, because the games had become so interlinked with their social lives. The commissioner recommended that “parents should talk to children about the importance of balancing time online with time spent offline”. But such homilies are no match for an industry which has perfected ways to steal our attention.

Perhaps the Chinese crackdown on gaming inadvertently poses a useful test for free-market capitalism. If we can’t save kids from becoming addicted to their smartphones, developing mental health problems and spending hours gaming instead of doing schoolwork, how are we going to outcompete China?

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