China’s limit on computer game time risks harming children’s education and should not be introduced in the UK, according to Professor Andy Phippen, a BCS Fellow and online harms expert. It should be parents, not the state that decides where to draw the line.

Modern gaming challenges like building Minecraft worlds with friends, or trading on Roblox, encourage children’s interest in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths) subjects, said Professor Phippen, who is professor of digital rights at Bournemouth University.

Parents, not the state, should regulate gaming time, but they deserve better research and guidance on the effects of screen-time to make those informed decisions, BCS added.

Tight restrictions

Under 18s in China can only spend an hour a day playing online games on Fridays, Saturdays, Sundays and public holidays. The country’s government announced the limit at the end of August, with the intention of reducing what it called 'youth video game addiction'.

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Prof Phippen, who specialises in digital rights at Bournemouth University, said: “It just seems such an odd thing to do and very unworkable. While we are a little way off this in the UK, [former Health Secretary] Matt Hancock previously said social media companies should regulate the amount of time children spend on these platforms. It is, therefore, not such a massive step to see government-mandated screen time here in the UK which makes me concerned.”

Five takeaways

Prof Phippen has set out five reasons why a limit on gaming would be a bad policy for the UK:

  1. Video games are often viewed, arbitrarily, as bad. However, loads of kids are enthusiastic about video games and are developing STEM knowledge as a result, because they want to work in the industry. UKIE say the gaming industry is now worth about £7 billion in sales for the UK. It should be viewed as a positive thing as long as it’s not done, like everything else, to excess.
  2. There is a lack of research about screen time and wellbeing. The better studies, such as the Oxford Internet Institute, show a weak correlation at best and that video games can be good for us.
  3. Who will define what gaming is in this context? Would a child doing an online crossword or word search be doing gaming? What about building a Minecraft world with friends? That’s more like online Lego than gaming in the more traditional sense.
  4. Is this something governments need to implement? Surely this is a parental intervention if they are concerned their children are online too much? While “gaming addiction” is defined in DSM-5 now (the go-to manual for mental health disorders) diagnosis is difficult and people often use the term poorly. I doubt many parents are sufficiently qualified to make a clinical diagnosis about gaming addiction. Most of the time, parents feel children are playing online games more than they would like. In which case, the parents should do something about it!'
  5. Why aren’t the Chinese authorities worried about kids playing too many board games? Can you imagine how ridiculous it would be for a government to say - children are playing too much Monopoly - it’s making them all disaster capitalists!

Draft legislation

The Government’s draft Online Safety Bill - requiring social media to abide by a duty of care to users, with financial penalties for failing to do so - will start being scrutinised by MPs and peers this month.

The proposals would ask platforms to identify and police “legal but harmful” content, which has sparked concerns about free speech.