NIDHAL GUESSOUMSeptember 17, 2021
The Chinese government this month decreed that youngsters under the age of 18 would be allowed to play online video games for only one hour (between 8 p.m. and 9 p.m.) on weekdays, instead of 90 minutes previously, and up to three hours on weekends and holidays.
Before we get into the more important question of why, I should explain how China expects to implement such a ban. The government issued its orders to gaming companies, requiring them to check the identities of players and enforce the ban. Most interestingly, the Chinese tech giant Tencent announced that it would roll out facial recognition software to prevent children from circumventing any such ban by using an adult’s login information.
As to why, I will elaborate below, but, in a nutshell, China has lately realized that the young generation is adopting various dangerous behavioral trends, including digital addictions, celebrity fan culture, and private tutoring. A state media outlet had, a few weeks before the ban, referred to the new addictions as “spiritual opium,” adding: “No industry, no sport, can be allowed to develop in a way that will destroy a generation.”
Of course, not everyone was pleased with what some considered authoritarian governmental heavy-handed interference with people’s lifestyles. However, many observers hailed the loud and clear alarm bell that China was ringing.
The statistics are indeed alarming: In China, digital addicts (to video games, social media, etc.) now number in the tens of millions, and every year countless parents take their kids to digital addiction treatment centers to get “weaned” or “detoxified.” In the US, 72 percent of homes have one or more video gamers, with girls now representing 46 percent of them, up from 38 percent 15 years ago. One study of more than 3,000 American gamers found them playing an average of about 20 hours a week.
There are several developments that explain this growing infatuation, if not addiction, with video games around the world. One is the very high quality of graphics and sound effects now used, which make games a very realistic, enjoyable and thus addictive experience. Another is the immersive nature of the games, many of them with thrilling action and others with adventure and role-playing features. Last but not least, most of the internet-based games bring players together in teams, adding an international dimension to the experience. Indeed, many gamers point out that they develop friendships across the world and enjoy emotional well-being through such “digitally social” interactions.
However, in addition to the addiction problem, two serious problems develop through gaming: Neglect of studying and other duties, and repeated and long exposure to violence, which many of those games include.
China has lately realized that the young generation is adopting various dangerous behavioral trends.
In truth, the data on the effect of gaming on school performance is mixed. Some studies, including a recent small-sized (17 college students) one in Saudi Arabia, found a positive relationship between video game playing and memorization, cognitive skills and school performance, particularly when the games are problem-solving types. However, skeptics point out that smart children will of course benefit from such games, but the majority will suffer at least from spending too many hours playing, at the expense of studying, working, taking care of family or other duties.
Moreover, overexposure to the violence in video games has worried parents and educators greatly. At least one study found a correlation between playing M (mature)-rated games (often full of violence, sometimes graphic) and bullying at school. The more they see such scenes and adopt such behavior in games, the more children become desensitized to violence, similarly to children who regularly get exposed to domestic violence and often become either offenders or victims, subconsciously accepting violence as a social norm.
Psychologists and educators have also observed more aggressive behavior and emotional outbursts among teenage gamers, as well as less inhibition, low self-esteem, marked anxiety and depression, and a general disconnect from social life.
Interestingly, when asked why they spend so much time on video games, many children say that they tried to connect with others, children and adults, around them, but no one paid attention to them. In gaming, they find a way to interact with others, real players or virtual characters, and to show their skills.
To sum up, video gaming has important social, educational and economic consequences. In 2015, the video games market was estimated at $23.5 billion. It has certainly greatly increased in the last six to seven years, with the pandemic, lockdown and other developments. Simply put, every hour spent playing, particularly on weekdays, is an hour lost to studying or carrying out duties. Specialists advise parents to limit screen time (gaming but also social media) to no more than 10 hours a week. Reducing children’s game time and access will have a great positive impact on our societies.
Back to China, it is unfortunate that governments have to resort to drastic laws to regulate what is, after all, individual and personal behavior, but clearly there is urgency in the matter. We all — parents, educators, social workers, entertainment industry leaders and others — need to address these trends with utmost seriousness, lest we lose too many of our fragile children.
• Nidhal Guessoum is a professor at the American University of Sharjah, UAE. Twitter: @NidhalGuessoumDisclaimer: Views expressed by writers in this section are their own and do not necessarily reflect Arab News’ point-of-view