China floats strict screentime limits and content crimps for kids

Two hours a day maximum and a guarantee of no nasties - parents everywhere might just welcome the Communist approach to this issue

+Comment The Chinese government has floated a plan to limit the amount of time minors can spend using electronic devices and the content they can access, plus a plan to ensure the nation's entire content ecosystem produces age-appropriate material.

The plan, outlined on Tuesday by the Central Cyberspace Affairs Commission, proposes that devices used by kids – including smartphones, tablet computers, smart watches and other wearables – include a "minor mode" that parents can enable.

Minor mode will have different settings depending on a child's age, with rules changing when kids turn 8, 12, and 16.

Kids aged under eight will only be allowed 40 minutes of usage each day, increasing to an hour for those aged between nine and 16. Seventeen-year-olds get two whole hours a day.

Exemptions are possible if parents specify apps that kids are allowed to use beyond their daily time limits.

Content served to kids would be limited by age under the plan, and content providers be required to provide content appropriate for viewing in minor mode – and make it easy to find on their services.

Kids under three years of age will get age-appropriate songs and other material, with a recommendation to offer audio content. Between the ages of four and eight, kids will get to see more general educational material. Upon turning nine, content covering popular science, life skills, and age-appropriate news will become available.

Thirteen-year-olds get to view "entertaining content with positive guiding significance," and 17-year-olds graduate to "recommend information that is suitable for the cognitive ability of this age group and healthy."

The touted minor mode would also:

  • Prevent use of a device between 22:00 and 06:00;
  • Remind users to take a break every 30 minutes;
  • Allow parents to set device usage times;
  • Include anti-bypass measures – such as only allowing factory resets with parental permission, and;
  • Require the minor mode app to be present on a device's home page at all times, without the ability to hide or uninstall it.

The plan also calls for all content viewed by kids to reflect Socialist values, and to be free of material that could negatively impact physical or mental health.

Another requirement is for developer mode to be accessible only if parents permit it – whoever wrote this thing has clearly thought about the issues in detail.

The plan is a draft for comment. But in Xi Jinping's China, such drafts often advance to regulation with little change.

Reg comment

If adopted, this plan will give tech and content ecosystems enormous to-do lists.

The likes of Apple and Google, for example, would have plenty of work to do to ensure their operating systems and online stores can comply with the sweeping regulations – as would China's constellation of app stores. Content producers would have to run teams dedicated to age-appropriate content.

But parents in China, and beyond, may not mind the burden imposed on tech and content companies.

Like many parents, your correspondent investigated content filters and router-level controls to weed out online content that wasn't appropriate for my kids to access. All were scarcely usable and/or so disruptive to domestic internet operations that they were not worth the time to make them behave.

We muddled through, and so did our now-young-adult children – despite a few unsavoury online incidents along the way. Plenty of our parental peers told us of their children suffering more, or worse, online experiences.

China's ecosystem-level approach reflects the Middle Kingdom's rigid values, which don't echo in much of the Reg-reading world. Yet I feel sure many parents reading this article would find China's approach appealing – even as they ponder another extension to Beijing's surveillance and censorship apparatus. ®

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