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Big Data Study Challenges the Effectiveness of Legislation on Screen Time

Chinas efforts to limit children and young people's computer gaming does not seem to have had the wished effect. That is the result of a study that SDU Professor Anders Drachen and his colleagues published in Nature Human Behaviour. If you want minors to spend fewer hours in front of the screen, it seems you have to confront the issue much more nuanced, the Professor says.

By Sebastian Wittrock, , 8/16/2023

In 2019, the Chinese government introduced a new law that prohibited minors from playing computer games for more than one and a half hours on weekdays. In 2021, the law was tightened, allowing children and youths under 18 in China to only engage in gaming on computers, mobile devices, and consoles for one hour a day and only on Fridays, weekends, and holidays.

However, there is a  slight problem: It doesn't really work as intended. 

At least, there's a lot that suggests so. A large big data analysis of gaming data from China, published on Thursday, August 10, 2023, in Nature Human Behaviour, casts serious doubt on whether the legislation has had the desired effect.

Professor Anders Drachen, the head of SDU Metaverse Lab, along with colleagues from ITU in Copenhagen, University of York, Oxford University, and De Montfort University, analyzed over 7 billion hours of gameplay from 2.4 billion gaming accounts across tens of thousands of mobile games. It is the first time researchers have used game data to measure the effects of legislation.

The results clearly indicate that there has been no decline in the frequency of so-called "heavy gaming," defined as more than 4 hours of gameplay per day for at least six days a week. In fact, there has been a slight increase, which the researchers, however, cannot conclude as significant.

- We have access to data from tens of thousands of games, but there are around a million games active globally. Therefore, we can only say something -about the games for which we have data, which, for example, doesn't include some of the most popular titles on PCs and consoles, says Anders Drachen.

- However, what we can see from the data we do have access to is that it doesn't seem like the legislation has had the desired effect.

Previous experiences

As for why gaming doesn't appear to have decreased, the SDU professor refrains from speculating.

There are reports that some gamers are circumventing the rules by, for instance, having multiple users on the same gaming account, borrowing accounts from older acquaintances, or using VPNs. It could also be that gaming companies either don't have the means to effectively comply with the Chinese government's rules or simply choose not to.

- But we can't say anything about that based on the data we have available, emphasizes Anders Drachen.

Nonetheless, the results align with experiences from other attempts at regulating online behavior. In many cases, the outcomes don't match expectations.

For instance, in Belgium in 2018, games with so-called "loot boxes" – gambling-like elements in games – were banned. However, since Belgian authorities have difficulties controlling what gaming companies worldwide do, and since there are no resources allocated to enforcing the law, the ban has had little effect.

- What it takes to change people's behavior regarding computer games – and what kind of behavior that will lead to a positive and giving relation to computer games and other interaction technology – is largely unknown, says Anders Drachen.

Other initiatives

Across most of the world, governments and politicians are nevertheless attempting to figure out what to do about the screen habits of children and young people.

There are discussions about how screen time affects the mental or physical health and social skills of children and youth, and whether it's all forms of screen time. Video games are particularly criticized, and concerns primarily revolve around addiction and the possibility that games could become a gateway to gambling.

- The extent of the problem and how to solve it remain, however, uncertain, and research in this field is lacking, says Anders Drachen. 

- Nonetheless, what is beginning to show is that a more nuanced approach may be necessary. Simply restricting access to video games might not be sufficient on its own.

- To begin with, we must ask ourselves what we aim to achieve – is it to reduce screen time or to enhance children's mental well-being? Since we don't know how these two things are interconnected, we can't use screen time as a measure of mental health. Legislation must align with the purpose, and there are positive experiences with combining legislation with other initiatives. This could include education and awareness, perhaps particularly targeted at parents so they are better equipped to engage in dialogue with their children, says the professor.

- Most people agree that something needs to be done. We need better understanding of how to protect children and young people online, but we must recognize that we are dealing with human behavior, which is complex, so it's unlikely that addressing only one aspect will be effective.

Meet the researcher

Anders Drachen is a Professor at Game Development and Learning Technologies at The Technical Faculty of SDU. He is the head of SDU Metaverse.

Editing was completed: 16.08.2023