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Midnight bans and rehab centres on the cards for China’s underage gamers

Children in China could be banned from playing online games after midnight under draft national regulations designed to combat internet addiction.

The rules, released by the Cyberspace Administration of China last week, also call on schools to work with “institutions” to help rehabilitate young internet addicts, raising concerns about the risks to children at “boot camp” treatment centres.

If the regulations go into effect, web game developers would have to block minors from playing online games from midnight to 8am.

Anybody under the age of 18 would also have to register for the games with their ID, and the information would be stored on the game operator’s servers. The games should be designed to deter young people from becoming addicted and software developed to detect under-age users.

The draft rules are open to public feedback until the end of the month.

The regulations are the latest official effort to stop young people from spending too much time on online games.

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In 2007, the authorities issued a notice requiring all internet game operators to install systems to prevent addiction, such as deducting points from young players if they spend more than three hours on a game.

Three years later, to stop teens from registering to play under fake adult IDs, the authorities ordered game companies to verify identity numbers with a database provided by the Ministry of Public Security.

Su Jun, a Shanghai-based senior web game developer, said the proposed regulations could make a slight dent in gaming companies’ revenue.

“If the ‘no gaming after midnight’ rule comes into effect, it might affect the industry,” Su said. “There is usually a period after midnight when we see a large number of players, and some of them are teenagers.”

According to the China Internet Network Information Centre, 23 per cent of China’s internet users were aged below 19, as of June 2016, with the total number of mainland internet users reaching 750 million.

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Military-style “boot camps” promoting themselves as treatment centres for internet addiction have flourished in China. Some reportedly use extreme methods such as electric shocks and other physical punishment to wean clients off online games.

Lawyer Wang Qiushi said he feared the regulations would lead to more of the boot camps.

“This is a disaster for Chinese teenagers,” Wang said.

“More such boot camps might emerge after the passage of this regulation.

“It will encourage more people to get into the ‘business’.”

Yue Xiaodong, a City University of Hong Kong psychologist who has studied internet addiction in China, said the problem used to be a serious social issue but was waning.

“Such regulations should have come out a long time ago,” Yue said. “Now the smartphone is replacing computers as the new cause of addiction. It will become a major social issue if we don’t pay attention.”

He said urban teenagers tended to spend a long time using social media and playing games with cellphones, and some of the restrictions in the regulations should apply to mobile gaming companies.