A few years ago, China cracked down on video games. Then, it imposed limits on livestreaming by children. Now China wants them to spend less time on their smartphones.
The country’s internet regulator this week proposed regulations that if adopted as written would require smartphones, apps and app stores to build a “minor mode” into their products. The aim is to restrict how long children can spend on their phones and what content they can read or watch.
The proposal, which is open for public comment, would expand the Chinese government’s efforts to regulate aspects of children’s online activity that it has deemed to be negative influences, experts said.
“The state in China sees itself as being the foremost authority on how children’s media consumption should be managed,” said Sun Sun Lim, a professor communication and technology at Singapore Management University.
The proposal says that the minor mode feature would try to prevent “internet addiction” by limiting children younger than 8 to 40 minutes of smartphone time a day. The time limit would increase would increase with age, reaching two hours daily for those age 16-18.
Apps would also have to tailor their content for different age groups. Children under the age of 3, for example, should be shown nursery rhymes and programs that can be watched with parents, according to documents from the Cyberspace Administration of China. Those between 8 and 12 could be offered videos about life skills, general knowledge, age-appropriate news and “entertainment content for positive guidance.”
The proposal says that users would be able to choose whether to use minor mode when a smartphone is turned on or first set up.
Some smartphones and apps already offer features that attempt to curb their use by children and China’s plan would provide an “additional layer of parental control,” said Barry Ip, a senior lecturer at the University of Hertfordshire in Britain who has researched technology use in China.
The proposal builds on a 2019 directive by China’s internet regulator that video and livestreaming apps create “anti-addiction systems for young people” — what the agency called a “youth mode.”
Dozens of video apps including Douyin — the Chinese version of TikTok — have features that limit children to 40 minutes a day on their apps and lock them out from 10 p.m. to 6 a.m., as well as restrict the content they can see.
There are technical challenges in implementing restrictions on how children use their phones.
Earlier this year, the Shanghai Consumers Council investigated 20 apps and found that some of their controls were lacking or unusable. Some apps showed no content at all when “youth mode” was turned on or showed videos that were “overly monotonous and dry,” the report found. The study found that one app that claimed to recommend different videos to children based on their age showed 4-year-olds the same cartoons as 14-year-olds.
The Chinese government heavily regulates and even censors what people see on the internet in the country. The new proposal could increase the authorities’ control, said Eric Lim, a senior lecturer in information systems and technology at the University of New South Wales.
“The question becomes, who’s going to be the final arbiter of what constitutes good or appropriate content for a certain age group?” he said.
It was unclear how the measures set out in the proposal would be enforced, Sun Sun Lim said, though she added that the regulatory effort reflected parents’ anxieties about their children’s smartphone use.
The proposal has received a mixed reception online. Some commended the move, lamenting the negative influence of unfettered internet access on young people.
“I’ve seen a lot of children full of vulgar slang and swear words, showing disrespectful gestures to others every day,” one commenter on Weibo said. “They may not even know what it means! They just copy the trend from the internet.”
But others criticized the proposal for being overly strict or failing to address why children spend so much time using their phones.
Wang Renping, who has three million followers on Weibo, posted that “treating youths like infants” would result in people growing up as “adult babies.”
“Can’t you develop some cultural and recreational projects fit for children? Or implement labor laws to give parents more time?” another Weibo commenter said.
In 2019, China limited how long children could play video games to 90 minutes a day on school nights and three hours a day on weekends. This was tightened to three hours per week in 2021. Last year, it banned young people under the age of 16 from livestreaming, and minors from paying livestreamers online.