China’s “techlash” has claimed its latest victims: gaming companies and the country’s online education sector. While these measures may yield modest short-term results, Sun Sun Lim and Wang Yang of the Singapore University of Technology and Design discuss why the state should explore more holistic solutions as it seeks to manage the social impact of ubiquitous technological innovation.
Spellbound by her screen: To break the spell, the Chinese government is limiting online gamers under 18 to an hour of play from 8 pm to 9 pm on Fridays, weekends and holidays (Credit: GOLFX / Shutterstock.com)
The Chinese government’s blitz against technology companies has claimed its latest victims: gaming companies. China's video game regulator has stipulated that online gamers under the age of 18 can play for only an hour from 8pm to 9pm on Fridays, weekends and holidays. Gaming companies were instructed to prevent children from playing outside of these times to stem their fixation on online games, previously labelled as "spiritual opium" by Chinese state media. According to reports, online gaming giant Tencent will use facial recognition to enforce this policy. The government will step up inspections to ensure that companies fulfil their obligations.
On September 18, ByteDance, parent company of the popular short-video application Douyin (抖音), China’s version of TikTok, announced that it would limit those under 14 years of age to only 40 minutes of access a day. Users have to be authenticated under their real names and can only be on the app between 6 am and 10 pm. ByteDance also launched Youth Mode on its application to promote educational content on topics such as science and history to younger users.
Policies that are ostensibly directed at improving the wellbeing of young people seem to be rising up the Chinese government’s priority list. In recent months, state authorities have also moved to curb online tuition, including prohibiting online education providers from teaching core curriculum subjects, banning classes on weekends and holidays, and imposing ceilings on fees that educational technology companies can charge. These are apparently efforts to relieve the academic pressure on students and to address the widening gulf between affluent families and their underprivileged counterparts.
The reach of Chinese regulators into the private confines of the home is certainly not new but has intensified in ways previously unseen as the country digitalizes. With technology inveigling itself into virtually every realm of society, Chinese families, too, have incorporated technology in their everyday routines. Nevertheless, this domestic embrace of technology, heightened by the pandemic, has also stoked fears of technological dependency and triggered state intervention.
A blessing and a curse
Yet, socio-technical relationships are at heart conflicted and complex. As families domesticate technology for their needs and wants, they welcome its benefits and conveniences but struggle to contain the attendant costs and harms. The Covid-19 pandemic underlined such feelings of ambivalence and equivocation. Our research on the technology use of Chinese families under lockdown in Hangzhou and Beijing in early 2020 revealed that in the eyes of Chinese parents, technology is undeniably a blessing and a curse.
On the one hand, technologies such as video conferencing software and online learning applications enabled school-going children to make a smooth transition to online learning during lockdowns. Thanks to these technologies, children could continue with their education, attending classes and participating in other learning opportunities from home, without much disruption. Meanwhile, parents could maintain contact with their children’s schools and teachers and acquire real-time feedback on the academic performance of their kids to better support their online learning.
The same technologies, however, also entailed new parental duties and challenges during the lockdowns. Children had virtually unlimited access to digital devices and more autonomy in using them, often without the direct supervision of parents with work commitments. Many parents lamented to us that their children’s technology use was getting “out of control”. Typically, they engaged in recreational activities such as chatting with friends, playing mobile games, and watching videos all day long, even during online classes. In view of the potentially detrimental impact of excessive technology use on their children’s education and health, some parents we interviewed chose to quit their full-time jobs or to install cameras or other surveillance devices at home to monitor their children closely.
Getting ahead and staying ahead
Chinese parents’ zeal to be involved in their children’s academic development is unsurprising, given the country’s notoriously competitive gaokao (高考) exam for entry into university. And technology has served to intensify parental responsibility for their children’s educational endeavors. In our research with Chinese families over the past five years, we have observed an increasing use of mobile applications for education and communication purposes among parents of all socioeconomic brackets. For them, parent-teacher conferencing and class management apps such as DingTalk (钉钉), Yiqixue (一起学), and Banji youhua dashi (班级优化大师) have become indispensable for ensuring that their children keep up with their studies.
These educational platforms provide a wide range of education-related functions, including curriculum schedules, homework management tools, notifications, online courses, parent-teacher communication channels, and shared drives for uploading learning resources and assignments. They are widely employed by most primary and secondary school teachers as well as parents in urban China. The intensive use of these applications facilitates efficient, real-time teacher-parent interaction through which teachers provide feedback on children’s academic performance at school and disseminate daily instructions for parents to assist children in their studies. Parents, in turn, have to respond to these requests, while keeping on top of their children’s educational progress and outcomes.
Given such a climate, it is unlikely that an online tuition ban would quash the thirst for academic hothousing. Furthermore, not only may the crackdown fail to relieve the parental burdens of time and investment, it may instead trigger greater panic and competitiveness, and eventually force parents (usually mothers) to sacrifice their careers to personally tutor their children or to seek illegal underground tuition services. Some schools have responded to the new policy by launching new programs requiring students to stay behind after school for compulsory self-study and “interest-oriented” classes. Even primary school students have to stay behind until 6pm before their parents can pick them up. Understandably, parents have not fully welcomed such initiatives.
Separately, the time limits on children’s gaming or video viewing are no silver bullets. At best, these limits hold only symbolic value in signaling the potential harms of excessive screen time. Children can still continue to play smartphone games, endlessly scroll through WeChat, or indulge in a multitude of other online activities. As one Chinese parent mused over Weibo, “children can twiddle their thumbs all day if they really do not want to study”. The gaming and video limits are merely blunt tools that fail to address the broad spectrum of challenges families encounter in managing device use among children. For example, the “left-behind” children who are being cared for by their grandparents while their parents seek employment elsewhere will need support that is more targeted and sensitive to their particular circumstances. Indeed, public education and community efforts to shore up the digital literacy of parents and caregivers will require greater investment in resources to be more effective in the long run.
Fundamentally, it takes more than state-directed quick fixes to moderate Chinese families’ management of their children’s academic pursuits and support parental mitigation of device use among children. Having cemented its status as a global artificial intelligence superpower through a slew of impressive technological innovations, China now seeks to manage their social impact too. The Chinese techlash may yield modest short-term results but the state will need to explore more holistic and creative solutions as technology makes its presence felt in every household.
Chen, Ted Mo. (August 31, 2021) “Edtech will survive China’s crackdown, but it won’t be the same”, TechNode, Shanghai, China.
Chu, Lenora. (September 19, 2017) Little Soldiers: An American Boy, a Chinese School, and the Global Race to Achieve, HarperCollins Publishers, New York, NY, USA.
Lee, Kai-Fu. (September 25, 2018) AI Superpowers: China, Silicon Valley, and the New World Order, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, Boston, MA, USA.
Lim, Sun Sun. (January 7, 2020) Transcendent Parenting – Raising Children in the Digital Age, Oxford University Press, Oxford, UK.
Lim, Sun Sun; and Wang, Yang. (January 2021) “Lessons from our living rooms: Illuminating lockdowns with technology domestication insights”, Journal of Children and Media, vol. 15, no. 1, pp. 17-20, Routledge, Abingdon, UK.
Sun Sun Lim
Singapore Management University
Singapore University of Technology and Design (SUTD)