We must stop children getting addicted to online gaming

China’s new restrictions on online games for those under 18 might be unthinkable elsewhere, but it is time for a digital detox.

Online games, and the platforms that support them, are becoming increasingly good at ensuring eyeballs remain glued to screens for as long as possible [File: Getty Images]

In an announcement that must have struck dread into the hearts of millions of children and teenagers, the Chinese government recently set out a new policy to restrict online games for those under 18 to just three hours a week.

While unpopular with young people as well as gaming companies, it does pose the question whether other countries need to look into the issue of children being increasingly consumed by online gaming.

The online gaming industry is massive. In 2020, the global online gaming market generated approximately $21.1bn in revenue, translating to a record 21.9 percent growth compared with the previous year. There are approximately one billion online gamers worldwide, of which more than 10 percent are Chinese children.

Heavy incentives

Online games, and the platforms that support them, are becoming increasingly good at ensuring eyeballs remain glued to screens for as long as possible. They are heavily incentivised because it helps them make money through advertising revenue and in-game services. For example, Amazon-owned streaming platform Twitch made more than $100m in advertising revenue alone in the first quarter of 2021, in part through enabling users to engage with 71 million hours of gaming streams daily.

Children who otherwise might be playing outdoors and making real friends, learning a skill, such as playing an instrument, or studying, are instead playing addictive online games.

The rapid enhancements in technology have made it all too easy for parents and children alike to rely on the internet for entertainment rather than make the effort to organise physical activities. With social networks now deeply integrated into these games and smartphones enabling instant access to technology, children’s social lives are predominantly limited to the various online platforms.

The problem, however, goes beyond wasting precious time that could be better allocated to making friends, doing physical exercise or studying for children. It can cause serious health issues.

Chinese authorities have branded their latest campaign as a war against “electronic drugs” due to the concerns about the addictive nature of online gaming platforms.

The US-based rehabilitation clinic Addiction Center describes how video games trigger the chemical dopamine in the same way addictive drugs can. The World Health Organization recently included gaming addiction as a disorder and estimated that 3-4 percent of video gamers struggle with addiction.

There are potentially tens of millions of people suffering from gaming addiction. People with symptoms of depression are also particularly vulnerable, seeing gaming as an escape from their day-to-day struggles.

‘Pay to win’ culture

Many platforms have gambling elements built into their systems, so addiction to online gaming can also lead to severe financial implications. Examples include in-game currencies that can be swapped with real money, enabling micro-transactions in exchange for “loot boxes”, which leads to a “pay to win” culture, where gamers can further their progress and add character customisation with money.

Ninety-three percent of all children play video games, but more worryingly, according to the charity Gamble Aware, up to 40 percent of those children opened in-game “loot boxes”, containing randomised digital awards.

Hence some children can end up spending more than $100 a month in an attempt to get a specific digital feature, such as a new outfit for their avatar. To counter such quasi-gambling, the UK government is exploring measures to control gaming micro-transactions the same way it regulates gambling.

Addiction to online gaming does not only affect children, adults can get hooked on these platforms, too. The Royal Society, the UK’s national academy of sciences, has published studies showing a “moderate to strong” correlation between adolescents playing games with micro-transactions and then developing a gambling addiction as an adult.

Online gaming forms part of a wider challenge in the modern digital world. Recent technological advancement has enabled us to search for information and services with relative ease, whether it is to access healthcare, conduct business via online video calls or share and discover gossip on social media platforms through videos, photos, news and blogs.

It is also intrinsic to our daily routine with many positive features, but it means we are now spending most of our hours awake staring at a screen.

Price comparison website Uswitch’s studies show that on average in the UK, people are digitally plugged in 6.4 hours a day. The figures are even worse for those born after 1995, known as Gen Z, who are consuming digital media for 11 hours a day, which is the majority of their waking hours.

Clamping down on gaming

For China, the latest clampdown on game time is an escalation of existing attempts to limit gaming for minors, which previously had a ceiling of 90 minutes of online playtime during weekdays. Online games will now only be available for children for an hour in the evening on Friday, Saturday, Sunday and public holidays. China may be unique in having the digital infrastructure and political power to enforce this policy.

Major gaming companies like Tencent have the responsibility to implement the policy, including requiring users to provide their real names and age or face the wrath of the Chinese state.

While restricting online games this way would be unthinkable in most countries, a wider debate on our relationship with the online world should still be had. In the UK, the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (SAGE) journals suggest that pandemic induced lockdowns have led people to spend 71 percent more time playing online games.

We need to be careful to not exacerbate this problem in the longer term, perhaps a digital detox is required. Otherwise, the consequence of inaction could be severe, especially for those born in the digital age.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.