Sunday, September 5, 2021

Addicted to Videogames

As China has chosen to crack down on children gaming, Western parents are divided in their reaction. Witness Camilla Cavendish’s Financial Times column from yesterday’s paper. For the record Cavendish is a baroness. I thought you would want to know.

As noted here before, the problem of addiction to social media has been presented on Netflix in a television show called, The Social Dilemma. It is not that Western parents are unaware of the problem or that the techno geniuses in Silicon Valley do not know what they are doing-- they know very well what they are doing. The problem is, while we are complaining about it, China is doing something about it.

No one knows whether the Chinese approach, limiting children to three hours of gaming a week, and only on weekends, will work. Still, it is an attempt to deal with a problem that seems beyond the capacities of most parents.

Cavendish explains:

Is it really so extreme? China’s crackdown on video gaming by under-18s seems to signal another attempt by the communist regime to grip family life. But in the west, some of us parents would be mightily relieved if we had a “big brother” who was willing to play bad cop. Because we ourselves are failing.

When our youngest started primary school six years ago, I started to notice how many visiting children would ask “where’s the console?” Not only did their faces fall when our lack of gaming equipment was revealed, but some were reluctant to do anything else instead. Since then, phones have become consoles and lockdowns have made online games a part of social life. My desire to keep my child out of it feels increasingly hopeless.

Many loathe communism because it removes autonomy and exerts control. But what if we applied the same critique to Silicon Valley? I know the makers of Fortnite don’t want to invade Taiwan. But they do want to invade our kids’ bedrooms.

She continues:

When half of all five to seven-year-olds play video games, and the World Health Organization has classified gaming disorder as a medical condition, we should ask ourselves: who is controlling who?

I don’t deny the brilliance of some of these products. One of our sons has learned chess by playing online with people all over the world. Many families only got through lockdown by entering fantasy worlds. Yet that only reinforces the point that video games are the “spiritual opium” described by Chinese state media, where choice is in fact an illusion.

For the record, China has fought wars in the past to keep opium out of its country. It fought and lost a war against Great Britain when the latter nation wanted to keep the Chinese market open to Indian opium. It was not, dare we say, the British Empire’s finest hour.

So, China has a special aversion and a special sensitivity to addictive substances foisted on it by Western cultures.

We can assume that Xi Jinping is not simply trying, as he asserts, to protect Chinese children from exhaustion. Coupled with a ban on private tutoring, the gaming restrictions look like an attempt to extend the surveillance state, purge Chinese youth of supposed foreign cultural corruption and address the demographic legacy of the one child policy, which threatens to make China old before it gets rich. Nevertheless, China has a history of worrying about tech addiction. In 2000, it banned gaming consoles and arcade player machines. In 2018, it imposed time limits on the mobile game Honor of Kings.

China’s leaders seem to believe that gaming is a threat to productivity and mental health, as well as their vision of a surveillance state. Yet in the west we are strangely quick to suspend judgment about the online world. We regulate gambling and working time, but we struggle to demand that gaming or social media companies set automated time limits, even though one recent study found English 10-year olds playing games for an average of two to three hours a day.

Of course, she is right. We in the West know that there is a problem, but we are loath to do anything about it. This might suggest that the tech behemoths are so powerful that they control our legislators and our bureaucrats. Some serious thinkers believe that it’s just the free market at work, but still, don’t we recognize that monopoly practices are antithetical to the free market. After all, the tech companies are doing their best to shut down the marketplace of ideas. How long will we allow this to continue?

One response is to blame the parents. The mother of a 15-year-old Welsh boy, who missed a year of school after becoming addicted to Fortnite, was criticised as lazy. But most parents feel powerless — especially when schools send homework online and require children to check email, from where it’s a short flick to YouTube, Instagram or Call of Duty.

Of course, one of the proposed solutions, which is, to explain to children how algorithms work, seems absurd on its face. They are children, after all. 

Another is to hope that transparency will solve the problem. If we explain to children how algorithms work, we imagine they will be better armed to resist temptation. But even tech executives are trapped. One of the most electrifying moments in the documentary The Social Dilemma, is when Tim Kendall, an ex-Facebook and Pinterest executive, describes locking himself in the pantry to keep scrolling on his phone despite his two young children needing him.

Addiction to online gaming has become a mental health problem:

In a survey by the Children’s Commissioner for England, many 10 to 16-year-olds reported that their friends’ behaviour became more aggressive and bullying when playing online. Some children admitted they felt addicted; others said they felt compelled to play longer than they wanted to, because the games had become so interlinked with their social lives. The commissioner recommended that “parents should talk to children about the importance of balancing time online with time spent offline”. But such homilies are no match for an industry which has perfected ways to steal our attention.

Again, parents are told that they should offer their children  therapeutically correct homilies, sermonettes about how bad the games are. Sadly, many people in our therapy culture take this absurdity seriously:

Perhaps the Chinese crackdown on gaming inadvertently poses a useful test for free-market capitalism. If we can’t save kids from becoming addicted to their smartphones, developing mental health problems and spending hours gaming instead of doing schoolwork, how are we going to outcompete China?

One recalls a Chinese-American woman by name of Lenore Chu who moved with her family to Shanghai. When she placed her three-year old in school, he came home complaining that his teacher has forced him to eat fried eggs. He did not like fried eggs and, when his teacher put them in his mouth, he spat them out. Teacher repeated the same process three times, and the boy finally swallowed the eggs.

When the outraged Chu went to the school to confront the teacher, the teacher asked what the correct American approach was. Chu responded that she was trying to teach her child the nutritional value of eating eggs. To little avail. Keep in mind, she was dealing with a three-year-old.

Anyway, Chu wrote about this incident several years after it occurred. Her son had been having an excellent experience in school, had made friends and had adapted to the alien culture. The outcome was largely positive, from her perspective.

Shades of the Tiger Mom.


Jester said...

And now I wonder if such companies as activision, Blizzard and the like that toe to lined to the commies in China to suppress anything out of Hong Kong or Taiwan on their games to gain more market share and the subjects money and time to play are rethinking their plans. Hard to sell online gaming time if a huge market demographic is effectively, banned.

David Foster said...

To Disappear in Dreams:

bobby said...

"When half of all five to seven-year-olds play video games, and the World Health Organization has classified gaming disorder as a medical condition, we should ask ourselves: who is controlling who?"

One thing we can determine: the parents aren't controlling their children.

So she asks, should we blame the parents? Yes.