This summer, the Chinese government unveiled a series of new policies related to the education and healthy development of minors. Policymakers shuttered for-profit tutoring programs, called for new, more relaxed afterschool activities to solve the longstanding “3:30 p.m. dilemma,” and implemented strict new rules that limit minors to just three hours of online gaming a week.
The recent policies represent a new step in the state’s longstanding campaign to help parents manage their children’s academic responsibilities and fight perceived problems like internet addiction. The scourge of youth misbehavior related to excessive internet use has long been a key concern in Chinese policy circles. As far back as the early 2000s, Chinese media highlighted stories of families coming to blows over children’s too-frequent trips to internet cafes. In 2002, after a 13-year-old set fire to one such cafe in Beijing, the government introduced rules banning minors from entering their premises, while a 2006 revision to China’s Law on the Protection of Minors added “infatuation with the internet” to the list of negative behaviors for underage children, alongside gambling and alcohol.
But these policies have seemingly had little lasting impact. After the latest restrictions were announced, a mother told me that while kids can no longer play domestic games online whenever they want, they can still download international games or watch gaming streams. This fits the pattern in which earlier rounds of restrictive policies often only resulted in new problem areas in need of further regulation.
This gap between policy language and real-world effect has pushed parents to find their own solutions, fueling the rise of a private industry in internet addiction treatment programs. Since the first of these institutions was founded in Beijing in 2005, the sector has been dogged by controversy: As early as 2006, reports that one camp was treating addiction with electroshock therapy provoked public outcry; some camps continue to rely on such methods even today. Yet the demand for such services — and the harsh, often military-like discipline they promise to instill in wayward minors — remains sizeable, especially among middle-class parents desperate to turn their kids into good students.
In 2014, when I was a graduate student in anthropology, I interned and did ethnographic fieldwork at an internet addiction treatment camp in a large Chinese city. I found that most of the children there were from middle class families or above, perhaps because the treatment program cost 14,000 yuan ($2,100) a month. Based on my interviews with the institution’s trainees, the three most common parental professions were teacher, police officer, and doctor.
This surprised me. Yet, during my internship and subsequent investigations, I came to realize that underlying China’s internet addiction panic are deeper social problems related to the social transformations of the past 40 years. Market competition has permeated every level of Chinese society since the 1980s, and education has become an increasingly important determinant of a child’s future prospects. Many of today’s parents lived through the early stages of the country’s market-oriented reforms and saw firsthand the fierce competition and widescale layoffs of employees at state-owned enterprises during the 1990s. They are keenly aware of the importance of a college diploma to their children’s security.
For most Chinese families, getting this diploma means taking part in the country’s extremely competitive public school system, passing the gaokao college entrance exam, and attending a good university. But it’s not just about material success. Middle and high schools compound families’ stress by publicly evaluating and ranking students based on test scores and performance. Children who do poorly in class are branded “bad students” and are subject to criticism and ridicule from their teachers and fellow students — with parents themselves shouldering part of the blame.
In her ethnography of middle-class parenting in China, the anthropologist Teresa Kuan borrowed a term from sociologist Allison Pugh when describing how parents participate in “the economy of dignity,” in which they pursue status and social belonging through consumption and other means. When Chinese parents enroll their children in after-school classes and force them to study hard and spend all their free time on homework, they do so not just because it’s a rational choice in a competitive educational market, but also because they feel compelled to save face for themselves and their kids in a society and moral world that is constantly ranking them against each other.
However, parents’ efforts are perceived as alienating by overworked teenagers. Kids use video games to relieve their stress and build much-needed social relationships; after all, their primary task at school is to learn rather than to make friends. This outlet is especially important for those who are struggling in class, as success in video games becomes a way to satisfy their desire for recognition and respect. In a sense, teenagers use the internet to create their own economy of dignity, giving them an alternative to the alienating reality imposed on them by anxious parents.
Most trainees enrolled in internet addiction treatment camps carry the weight of their families’ hopes on their backs. Yufei was earning a steady income as a professional esports player when he was just 14 years old, yet his parents — who work for the government — still sent him to a treatment camp: “In the eyes of mainstream society, gaming still isn’t seen as a reliable profession,” Yufei told me. “It’s ‘low end.’ There’s essentially no difference between professional gamers and migrant workers.”
These mindsets are especially entrenched among middle-class parents with good jobs. As their social status rises, they have higher expectations of their children and put more pressure on them. At the same time, however, many are busy working long hours and often spend little time communicating with their children; instead, they try to control their lives from a distance, often via mechanical approaches to discipline and teaching inflected with Confucianist paternalism.
As a result, many children self-medicate to escape from the real world. The — albeit illusory — sense of achievement and freedom that gaming gives them helps relieve their feelings of pressure, anxiety, and helplessness. In games like “League of Legends,” successful kills are accompanied by special effects and visible representations of achievement like moving up the rankings.
But to traditionally-minded parents who see gaming as a distraction and the cause of poor grades, rather than a response to them, the hobby is a provocation. They worry deeply about their children straying from the proper course of development, something that could lead to them dropping out of the middle class.
Family therapy was therefore an important part of the treatment process at the camp where I conducted my fieldwork. The camp’s director and counselors believed that internet addiction in children is just a symptom of the underlying problem: domestic conflict. The parents, who were born in the 1960s and ‘70s, mostly wanted their children to obey and respect them. They were largely unaware of the harm this mindset can cause to children who grew up in an increasingly individualized, marketized, and digital-based society. The camp emphasized that they should learn how to listen to their offspring and communicate with them as equals, rather than condescend to and criticize them.
These family therapy sessions can help some families mend their relationships while offering children an alternative refuge to the internet, but they do nothing to address underlying social problems. Even if the country limits minors’ access to addictive online games, it won’t stop families from worrying about their kids’ education and pressuring them to work harder. It may in fact worsen their anxiety. Meanwhile, minors are unlikely to stop seeking out platforms where they can play games, further aggravating the perception of internet addiction as a problem and creating a vicious cycle of crackdowns and countermeasures. To truly solve the problem of gaming addiction among young people, it is essential to help them find meaning in their studies and lives, not just trap them in a world of alienation and constant competition.
Translator: David Ball; editors: Cai Yiwen and Kilian O’Donnell; portrait artist: Wang Zhenhao.
(Header image: Digital Vision/People Visual)