China Set to Impose Mobile Device Limits for Minors

China Set to Impose Mobile Device Limits for Minors

Tech News

The country’s top internet regulator announced draft guidelines this week to govern the mobile internet use of children under the age of 18. The proposal requires device makers to introduce time limits on internet use for children, and app operators to roll out different pools of content for youths of different ages.

Parents could decide whether to impose the restrictions and could expand the time limits.

The regulator, the Cyberspace Administration of China, said the new requirements were meant to protect the physical and mental health of young people.

Chinese parents who have struggled to keep their children away from screens are looking forward to the change.

“It would be great if there was a way to force him not to spend so much time online,” Wang Yuefang, a shift manager at a textile factory in the southern manufacturing hub of Guangzhou, said of her 13-year-old son. “He spends several hours a day scrolling and playing videogames. He’s been nearsighted since he was very young.”

China’s move breaks new ground as governments around the world wrestle with questions of whether, and how much, to regulate young people’s use of social media and the internet.

The debate accompanies growing concern globally about internet addiction and other ills that have followed the rise of social media, such as soaring levels of teenage depression and impaired social skills.

In March, Utah Gov. Spencer Coxsigned a bill that prohibits social-media platforms from allowing access to users under 18 without parental consent. The law was cheered by local parents, but drew protests from some civil liberties groups that warned about the risks of cutting off LGBTQ children from sources of online support.

France approved a law in June mandating platforms like TikTok and Instagram to verify users’ ages and obtain parental consent for those under 15.

China’s draft restrictions would limit children under eight to no more than 40 minutes a day on mobile devices, while minors ages 16 to 18 would be allowed up to two hours a day. Exceptions would be made for apps used in emergencies or for schooling.

China is already ahead of the curve in regulating the online behavior of its more than 190 million young people. In 2021, Chinese authorities moved to restrict the time people under 18 spend playing videogames, limiting them in most cases to three hours a week. The next year it banned minors from tipping influencers on livestreaming platforms.

China was among the first countries to require app makers to introduce “youth modes” that limit screen time and the types of content and activities they can access. It has also extended the scope of its law on the protection of minors to include cyberspace, and has shut down or reprimanded thousands of apps and websites that officials said were found harmful to children.

In China, the internet penetration rate in people ages 6 to 18 was 97% in 2021, compared with 73% in all age groups, according to the state-backed China Internet Network Information Center.

Minors’ physical and mental health continue to be jeopardized by exposure to cyber scams, bullying, violence, pornography and advertising, as well as addiction to videogames, Niu Yibing, deputy director of the CAC, said in March while laying out the agency’s priorities for the year.

“The big idea here is to give parents a very convenient one-button choice to turn on a child mode on their phones,” Tom Nunlist, a Shanghai-based associate director at Trivium China who specializes in tech policy, said of the CAC’s draft guidance.

In addition to the time limits, the proposed regulation also spells out types of content recommended for children of different age groups, and details what content they should be actively shielded from. Children less than three years of age, for example, should mainly be limited to audio content, according to the draft, while apps should promote core socialist values and help minors develop good habits.

Apps shouldn’t use algorithms to recommend content that could encourage children to imitate unsafe behaviors and induce them to become addicted to the internet, according to the draft.

Chinese video-sharing apps and social-media platforms have been required since 2019 to deploy anti-addiction systems for teenagers that restrict screen time and access to certain types of content. TikTok’s Chinese sibling app, Douyin, automatically activates a “teenager mode” that limits daily usage to 40 minutes for users under the age of 14, though parents can give consent to turn it off.

Douyin rival Kuaishou said it has refined its moderation policies and added additional layers to filter content for younger users. Tencent Holdings’ do-everything app WeChat restricts minors from accessing some features such as livestreaming, shopping and videogames. Many video-streaming services cut off minors between 10 p.m. and 6 a.m.

Chinese officials have suggested that the current anti-addiction measures are flawed because they require parents to turn on controls for each individual app, and because children can bypass them easily.

The new rules requiring devices to offer a “youth mode” will help with implementation of the anti-addiction system as many smaller apps lack the ability to conduct proper age-related checks on their own, say executives from tech companies who have frequently communicated with regulators.

Still, the protections offered by the new system remain limited because parents aren’t required to use it on their children’s devices, said Sun Sun Lim, a professor of Communication and Technology at Singapore Management University.

Device makers including Apple, Samsung, Huawei and Xiaomi already allow parents to set screen-time limits for their children. Apple’s recent struggles with its parental controls on iPads and iPhones show that technical glitches can also be a problem.

Wang, the textile worker, said she wouldn’t be surprised if her son developed a method to evade the new controls.

“There are probably a lot of ways he can sneak around with his phone,” she said. Her son used to get around the existing “teenager mode” on Chinese apps by uninstalling and reinstalling them, she said.

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