Earlier this year, a viral video showcasing a 13-year-old boy in Guangxi brandishing a cleaver and threatening his father served as a stark wake-up call for millions across China. The catalyst behind this outburst was the father’s decision to confiscate his son’s smartphone due to excessive usage—a compelling instance of the pervasive screen addiction afflicting Chinese youth.
In response to this growing concern, the Chinese government has taken steps to intervene. Recently, the country’s cyberspace regulator proposed a measure aimed at curbing smartphone usage among minors. This proposal mandates that providers of smart devices implement a “minor mode,” limiting usage for individuals under 18 years of age to a maximum of two hours.
Though the proposed regulation is currently undergoing a comment period until September 2, its mere announcement has already reverberated through the tech market in China. Notably, Chinese tech shares experienced a downturn in Hong Kong, with Alibaba and Bilibili seeing declines of over 3% and nearly 7%, respectively. Tencent and Weibo also encountered drops exceeding 3% and 5%.
Minglu Chen, a senior lecturer of Chinese governance at the University of Sydney, underscores the potential impact on businesses catering to online services for children. “Their interest would be hurt massively if this is going to be a policy,” Chen asserts.
While the move may have taken some by surprise, it aligns with President Xi Jinping’s government stance on the pivotal role of young individuals in China’s developmental trajectory. Past efforts have already been made to regulate youth tech addiction, including restricting video game playing time to less than three hours weekly and addressing online fandom culture. Leading social media platforms such as Douyin (China’s counterpart to TikTok) and Weibo have similarly instituted measures, like a 40-minute daily usage limit and a ban on users under 14.
The prevalence of smartphone addiction, particularly exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic, has prompted action. A 2022 study by Canada’s McGill University indicated that China, along with Malaysia and Saudi Arabia, ranked highest among 24 countries for problematic smartphone use. Official state publication Global Times acknowledged this issue, citing a survey revealing that 21.3% of “left-behind children” (those under 16 whose parents work outside their hometown) have developed severe smartphone addiction.
The repercussions of phone addiction are significant, encompassing diminished productivity, anti-social behavior, elevated stress levels, compromised sleep quality, and mood disorders. UNESCO, the United Nations Organization for Education, science, and Culture, lends its support to a smartphone ban in schools due to its link with reduced academic performance and heightened instances of bullying.
Chen emphasizes the importance of this intervention in shaping China’s future workforce: “These are children who will grow up to be the labor force of China in some years… So there has always been strong concern about [how children are raised to] serve the interests of the state in the future”.