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China wants to stop kids using their smartphones overnight



Beijing regulators have launched a new salvo in their war against kids spending too long on smartphones.

Smart devices sold in China will need to include a “minor mode” that parents can activate which impose limits on app usage and screen time, according to draft rules published by the Cyberspace Administration of China, the country’s top internet regulator and censor.

When a device is put into “minor mode,” it will impose usage limits according to a user’s age. For example, those between 16 and 18 can only use their devices for two hours, while users younger than 8 will get just 40 minutes of screentime. Devices will also halt access to the internet between 10:00 p.m. and 6:00 a.m.

Parents will have the option to tweak these limits, and grant exemptions to their children upon request. Nor will all services be affected by “minor mode”: Emergency services, education apps and other kid-friendly programs won’t be constrained.

The proposed rules from the CAC appear to shift the burden of controlling underage internet usage from software developers to hardware makers.

Chinese regulators have pushed software companies to impose limits on how long children can use their services. The country limited when children could play games in 2019, and imposed further playtime limits on those under 18 in 2021: as little as three hours a week, only between 8:00 p.m. and 9:00 p.m., and only on Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays.

ByteDance’s Douyin, the developer’s version of TikTok for the Chinese market, also has a “teenager mode” that bans certain forms of content, like videos of pranks or superstitions. 

Still, the rules were difficult to develop and hard to enforce. Tencent has even tried using facial recognition technology to monitor people playing its games—and stop them if the software determined that the player was a child.

The rules released on Wednesday are still in a draft form, and can still be revised after public feedback. Regulators have weakened their proposals before. In July, the CAC released finalized rules on generative A.I.—chatbots like OpenAI’s ChatGPT, for example—which removed several penalties included in an earlier draft version.

China gaming

While Wednesday’s proposal focuses primarily on hardware manufacturers, software companies aren’t off the hook. Developers will need to prioritize “social interest” content for underage users, including educational information, science content, and “core socialist values.”

The CAC hopes this will “forge the young people’s solid awareness of the unity of the Chinese nation, cultivate minors’ pride in our country,” and “guide minors to develop good living and behavioral habits,” according to a translation from the South China Morning Post.

The increased focus on regulating how children use the internet, and for how long, could force developers to bifurcate their product line. “These rules create strong differentiated markets for kids of different ages vs. adults,” tweeted Kendra Schaefer, head of tech policy research at Trivium China, a consulting firm. 

And that might have repercussions for China’s lucrative video gaming sector. The country’s video game playing population rose to 668 million by the end of June, and generated $20 billion in the first half of the year, according to the CGIGC, a government-run trade association for the industry. 

The three highest-grossing mobile games in June also came from Chinese developers: Tencent’s “Honor of Kings” and “PUBG Mobile,” and Mihoyo Games’ “Honkai: Star Rail”, according to PocketGamer, citing data from tracking company Sensor Tower. 

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