On August 30th Uncle Xi Jinping stepped into many Chinese living rooms and asked hundreds of millions of his nieces and nephews to hand over their video game controllers. Three hours per week is all they get now. According to a press release from Xinhua state news, he promised to give them back on Friday, Saturday, and Sunday for an hour each evening.
Now to my ear, that sounds a bit draconian. One hour per day is barely enough to stretch out the carpal tunnel and warm up the thumb muscles. I might have given kids a bit more leeway, even though I understand the avuncular concern and agree that online addiction deserves bureaucratic attention.
“Teenagers are the future of our motherland,” said an anonymous source representing the NPPA (National Press and Publication Administration). “Protecting the physical and mental health of minors is related to the people’s vital interests and relates to the cultivation of the younger generation in the era of national rejuvenation.”
Obviously, there’s a bit more to the story than pure, paternalistic protection. The Chinese Communist Party has grown trepidatious about the growing influence of mega-cap tech companies and the threat they pose to the party’s hold on power. However, that doesn’t mean that the online gaming policy wasn’t paved with some genuine concern.
It’s self-evident to anyone old enough to know what life was like before “smart” phones and the internet, that this stuff is ridiculously addictive. Although many have been conducted, we do not need the results from PET scan studies to know that these powerful technologies are changing our brains. Perhaps Homo sapiens are not well equipped to turn away from such a readily available dopaminergic teat without a little help, or at least a more obvious warning label.
So, it feels like we’ve reached an inflection point. We’re all grateful that the internet has improved our lives in myriad ways—my love life might be stymied without it—but we can no longer ignore the fact that it carries some insidious dangers especially for young people. It’s almost as if some kind of instinctual warning signal for the species has been sounded simultaneously worldwide, and we’re all just now starting to pay attention to it.
Here in the U.S., there are also some green shoots of progress. Take, for example, Frances Haugen’s leak of Facebook’s internal research that revealed it was aware of the detrimental effects social media can have on young women. That’s a positive development. It might not result in any immediate action by the company or in Congress, but at least it’s a sign that some of the ethical considerations stirring in the substratum have finally bubbled up to the surface.
How to devise appropriate safeguards to protect against online addiction is a big, hairy, and complicated subject. In a perfect world, careful debate would result in nuanced policy. But practically speaking, the trajectory of cyber-ethics is unlikely to map out in a neat-clean arc.
The Chinese government is not going to start to finesse internet policies; they will continue to wield blunt instruments. Meanwhile, in the U.S., where profit motives are often at odds with ethics, change will only be handed down from boardrooms or courtrooms. It’s unlikely any major overhaul will occur without a lawsuit. Who knows, maybe a group of parents will blame an online gaming portal for not providing an automatic shut-off mechanism after an excessive period of time?
Ultimately, morality boils down to action, rather than mere rhetoric. The famous painter Vincent Van Gogh put it quite succinctly when he opined on the subject, “Principles are only good when they generate acts.” Therefore, I think the Chinese deserve some credit. By implementing strict online gaming limits, they have not only contributed to the conversation but also taken action. That should count for something, even if their motives might not have been completely pure.
Permit me to leave you with this final image. Imagine, if you will, a pantheon of modern oligarchs walking around Silicon Valley discussing the nature of cyber-ethics, much in the same way that morality was debated in Ancient Greece. This contemporary portrait would certainly include members of Congress, Xi Jinping, Tim Cook, the co-CEOs of Samsung (Kim Ki Nam and Kim Hyun Suk), Jack Dorsey, and Mark Zuckerberg. The paint hasn’t yet begun to dry, but so far, in its current iteration, Uncle Xi appears to be wearing the noblest robes and laurels around his head.
Eric Dessner is an ophthalmologist.
Image credit: Shutterstock.com