The Chinese government wants to limit screen time for kids

Business & Technology

The Cyberspace Administration of China’s latest regulations want to co-opt parents into cutting down on their children’s time online. But this will cut into the bottom lines of China’s tech giants, too.

Illustration for The China Project by Alex Santafé

The Cyberspace Administration of China (CAC), the country’s national internet regulator, today released draft regulations to severely limit the time young people spend online.

Companies and citizens have one month to submit their opinions on the regulations, but the CAC has not provided a timeline for implementation, nor did it provide any concrete details on how the new rules will be enforced. Nevertheless, the impact on the valuations of Chinese tech stocks has been instantaneous, with share prices of Alibaba, Tencent, and internet giants tumbling.

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Attempts to limit children’s internet usage in China are not new. Beijing has long worried that excessive screen time is leading to myopia and internet addiction among many children, and state-backed media has argued in the past for gaming as a kind of “mental opium.” But the sweeping nature of this new proposal is more restrictive than any laws currently on the books.

The regulations, titled “Guidelines for the Construction of a Mobile Internet Mode for Minors,” provide a laundry list of specific requirements for limiting both young people’s screen time and the kind of content they are exposed to. The rules specifically target “smart mobile devices” (移动智能终端) and do not mention if the same restrictions will be applied to laptop and desktop computers. However, of the 1.067 billion internet users in China as of December 2022, 1.065 billion mostly connect via mobile devices.

The rules function on a sliding scale depending on the child’s age. For instance, children below the age of eight may only spend a maximum of 40 minutes on their devices each day. This moves up to one hour for those between the ages of eight and 16, and two hours per day for those between the ages of 16 and 18. But for all groups, device usage between the hours of 10 p.m. at night and 6 a.m. the following day will be prohibited.

The kind of content that users can access is also to be controlled. The guidelines encourage companies to push educational content to young users. Older children are allowed to access entertainment and news content, but this must be content that “promotes socialist core values and advanced socialist culture, revolutionary culture, and excellent traditional Chinese culture.” Material that is deemed to jeopardize the physical or mental health of children is to be prohibited.

The controls will need to be implemented by the tech companies, which will have to build “children’s mode” functionality into apps and devices. Parents will have to implement this “children’s mode” at their own discretion, and will also be provided with data about their children’s device usage.

One section of the draft that will likely draw the ire of internet firms strikes at the heart of their business model: Recommendation algorithms will no longer be able to promote content that could “induce minors to become addicted to the internet.” And on educational sites, pushing advertising that is not related to learning will also be prohibited.

Recommendation algorithms and targeted advertising are fundamental to how many tech companies monetize their products, by trying to monopolize user attention for as long as possible and trying to sell them things. Any attempt to disable these functions could dramatically impact the ability of these companies to operate.

The final shape of the proposed regulations remains to be seen. Draft legislation promulgated by the CAC earlier this year on managing generative artificial intelligence services was watered down from the initial draft. This followed backlash over concerns that such heavy-handed regulations would have a deleterious effect on China’s abilities to compete in the production of large language models and other cutting-edge AI applications. As such, it seems likely that the final version of these new regulations will change following feedback from the public and consultations with industry.