Five Ways China Is Trying To Unaddict Kids From Social Media

Blackout hours, educational content, time limits, and interspersed pauses. This is how China is attempting to mitigate social media addiction, especially among kids. 

Welcome to a special Wednesday edition of Big Technology. I’m sending this one a bit early ahead of Thanksgiving, and wishing you and your family a great one if you celebrate.

Social media apps are changing quickly in China. A Chinese government push to limit app addiction — especially among kids — has sparked some major modifications from the country’s leading players. Douyin, the Chinese version of TikTok, has been particularly aggressive. Blackout hours, built-in breaks, and time limits are now standard on its app.

The Chinese government demanded these changes after watching social apps cut into kids’ schoolwork and socializing time. By pushing them forward, it’s making a bet that what the kids might lose in creativity and digital literacy they’ll make up for in attention span and ambition. So, we’re about to witness an unprecedented, natural experiment about whether unfettered social media access helps or hurts kids. 

Here’s a look at five major social media changes taking place inside China, along with some potential tradeoffs:

40-minute daily time limits

Kids using Douyin, the Chinese version of TikTok, will only be able to use it for 40 minutes per day. Bytedance — the maker of Douyin and TikTok — said all children under 14 years old would be subject to the limit. TikTok did not respond to a question about whether it had similar plans.

App is closed from 10 p.m. - 6 a.m.

If kids under 14 try to use Douyin between 10 p.m. and 6 a.m., the app simply won’t work. These blackout hours eliminate the social pressure for kids to participate in social media conversations that run deep into the night, said Tristan Harris, president of the Center for Humane Technology. “It's quite literally as if Xi Jinping saw the Social Dilemma," he said last week while discussing these changes with Joe Rogan. If everyone’s on social media, you feel obligated to be there. If nobody’s on, you can sleep.

Five-second pauses between videos

Last month, Douyin said it would add five-second pauses between some videos. In these pauses, the app will show messages like "put down the phone," "go to bed," or "work tomorrow." The breaks might shock some people out of mindless, endless-scroll rabbit holes. It also has some population control vibes.

Educational content inserted in the feed

Douyin will show more educational content to kids. The company said it would increase the number of informational videos appearing in the feed, including science experiments, museum exhibitions, scenery, and history. This could be used for propaganda. It might also inspire kids using Douyin to develop passions in science and the arts.

Video game ban

This summer, China made headlines by banning video games for kids outside of three hours on the weekend. The ban could help break some video game addictions, but it’s risky. If the future of computing moves to the so-called Metaverse — where people interact as avatars in common spaces online — then video gaming is where it all begins. There are already kids living this reality in places like Roblox and Fortnite. So removing them from video games could potentially set them back when it comes to grappling with, and thriving in, this new digital world.

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