Tencent is policing children's gaming habits. That's a good thing

Digital well-being cannot be left to individual responsibility. States and tech companies must do their bit

Based in Shenzhen, China, Tencent is the world's largest video games publisher, with stakes in popular titles such as Fortnite and PlayerUnknown's Battlegrounds, popularly known as PUBG. Last month, the Chinese gaming giant announced the rollout of a new facial recognition application called Midnight Patrol. This tool will help the company identify children who are gaming past their bedtime. Emphatically, the Tencent announcement ended with a word of advice: "Children, put your phones away and go to sleep."

Since 2019, in an attempt to reduce the rates of gaming disorder, the Chinese government has required minors to log in to online games using real names and national ID numbers. Additionally, individuals under 18 are restricted to 90 minutes of gaming per day and three hours during holidays. They must also observe a cyber-curfew: no online gaming after 10pm or before 8am. However, some crafty children try to get around the restrictions by logging in with an adult's ID. Midnight Patrol has been engineered to help close such loopholes.

Some criticise the measure as infringing on privacy or being overly paternalistic. However, there is also a growing concern about the negative impact that technologies such as online games and social media have on society, especially young people. For example, a US study published in the Journal of Broadcasting and Electronic Media found that 44 per cent of children, aged between eight and 12, listed age-inappropriate sites as their favourites.

These growing concerns about the online world have led to the digital well-being movement, with organisations such as the Centre for Humane Technology and the Digital Wellness Collective leading the charge. One of the main questions these organisations ask is: how can we cultivate healthier – more balanced – relationships with the digital technology around us?

An initial answer has been to place the responsibility on the individual user. As a result, there has been an explosion in the number of apps that claim to promote digital well-being. For example, Google Chrome's web store currently recommends the following: Unaddict (we stop web addiction), Deepmode (stay on task online) and StayFocused (block time-wasting apps). There are hundreds of others.

These digital self-control apps do such things as track and report our screen time, disable social media notifications or block specific "distracting" sites. Some tools gamify the experience; for example, I am awarded points if I stay away from distracting sites. The emphasis, however, is on self-monitoring and self-control. The responsibility is all mine.

Anecdotes and testimonies suggest that some people find these digital self-control apps helpful. To date, however, there is very little hard evidence that they have a lasting positive impact on our digital habits.

Beyond self-control, though, we also need social media and gaming companies to shoulder a greater burden of responsibility for the well-being of their users. Thankfully, some companies have slowly started to wake up to this duty of digital care.

In 2018, for example, Facebook made changes to the service's newsfeed function, expressing concerns about excessive unproductive time being spent on the platform. In a similar move, Instagram introduced the "you are all caught up" checkmark, and YouTube added a "take a break" notification and a "time watched" metric.

Some, however, are sceptical about social media and tech companies getting involved in the digital wellness movement. In their article Framing 'digital well-being' as a social good, Alex Beattie and Michael Daubs suggest the newfound interest in digital wellness is a tactic to avoid future governmental regulation.

Indeed, governments worldwide have already started to propose and pass legislation with digital well-being in mind. For example, in 2019, the Smart Act was presented to the US Senate. This law would ban social media and gaming companies from using practices that exploit human psychology. If passed, it would also require them to demonstrably reduce the risks of internet addiction (gaming disorder and problematic social media use).

Another bill currently before the US Senate is the Detour Act. This law seeks to prevent online operators (gaming or social media platforms) from studying the data they collect without consent. The law also requires that they refrain from adding features to their platforms that lead to compulsive use.

Outside of the US, with digital well-being in focus, the French government passed a law that became known as the "right to disconnect". This law, passed in 2017, stipulates that companies with more than 50 employees must establish specific hours between which employees should not send or reply to emails. In the same year, Germany passed the Network Enforcement Act. The German law requires social media companies to promptly resolve complaints concerning illegal content, such as hate speech or fake news, or face fines of up to €5 million (almost $6m). Facebook received a $2.3m fine in 2019 for underreporting complaints about illegal content.

In February, the UAE launched its digital well-being policy that covers an online behaviour code to be be taught to Emiratis in government schools, as well as a new rating system to keep parents informed about the video games their children play.

As more of our work migrates online and more of our leisure time moves in the same direction, we need to think creatively about promoting digital well-being. The responsibility cannot rest on the shoulders of the individual, especially not a child's shoulders. Governments, NGOs and the tech sector must do more to ensure that technology is continuously improving life rather than distracting us from it.

Listen to the Business Extra podcast on what companies using facial recognition here

Published: August 7th 2021, 2:00 PM
Justin Thomas

Justin Thomas

Justin Thomas is a professor of psychology at Zayed University and a columnist for The National