How China takes extreme measures to keep teens off TikTok

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As I often say, the American people and the Chinese people have much more in common than either side likes to admit. For example, take the shared concern about how much time children and teenagers are spending on TikTok (or its Chinese domestic version, Douyin).

On March 1, TikTok announced that it’s setting a 60-minute default time limit per day for users under 18. Those under 13 would need a code entered by their parents to have an additional 30 minutes, while those between 13 and 18 can make that decision for themselves.

While the effectiveness of this measure remains to be seen (it’s certainly possible, for example, to lie about your age when registering for the app), TikTok is clearly responding to popular requests from parents and policymakers who are concerned that kids are overly addicted to it and other social media platforms. In 2022, teens spent on average 103 minutes per day on TikTok, beating Snapchat (72 minutes) and YouTube (67). The app has also been found to promote content about eating disorders and self-harm to young users.

Lawmakers are taking notice: several US senators have pushed for bills that would restrict underage users’ access to apps like TikTok.

But ByteDance, the parent company of TikTok, is no stranger to those requests.In fact, it has been dealing with similar government pressures in China since at least 2018.

That year, Douyin introduced in-app parental controls, banned underage users from appearing in livestreams, and released a “teenager mode” that only shows whitelisted content, much like YouTube Kids. In 2019, Douyin limited users in teenager mode to 40 minutes per day, accessible only between the hours of 6 a.m. and 10 p.m. Then, in 2021, it made the use of teenager mode mandatory for users under 14. So a lot of the measures that ByteDance is now starting to introduce outside China with TikTok have already been tested aggressively with Douyin.

Why has it taken so long for TikTok to impose screen-time limits? Some right-wing politicians and commentators are alleging actual malice from ByteDance and the Chinese government (“It’s almost like they recognize that technology is influencing kids’ development, and they make their domestic version a spinach version of TikTok, while they ship the opium version to the rest of the world,” Tristan Harris, cofounder of the Center for Humane Technology and a former Google employee, told 60 MinutesBut I don’t think that the difference between the two platforms is the result of some sort of conspiracy. Douyin would probably look very similar to TikTok were it not for how quickly and forcefully the Chinese government regulates digital platforms.

The Chinese political system allows the government to react swiftly to the consequences of new tech platforms. Sometimes it’s in response to a widespread concern, such as teen addiction to social media. Other times it’s more about the government’s interests, like clamping down on a new product that makes censorship harder. But the shared result is that the state is able to ask platforms to make changes quickly without much pushback.

You can see that clearly in the Chinese government’s approach to another tech product commonly accused of causing teen addiction: video games. After denouncing the games for many years, the government implemented strict restrictions in 2021: people under 18 in China are allowed to play video games only between 8 and 9 p.m. on weekends and holidays; they are supposed to be blocked from using them outside those hours. Gaming companies are punished for violations, and many have had to build or license costly identity verification systems to enforce the rule.

When the crackdown on video games happened in 2021, the social media industry was definitely spooked, because many Chinese people were already comparing short-video apps like Douyin to video games in terms of addictiveness. It seemed as though the sword of Damocles could drop at any time. 

That possibility seems even more certain now. On February 27, the National Radio and Television Administration, China’s top authority on media production and consumption, said it had convened a meeting to work on “enforcing the regulation of short videos and preventing underage users from becoming addicted.” News of the meeting sent a clear signal to Chinese social media platforms that the government is not pleased with the current measures and needs them to come up with new ones.

What could those new measures look like? It could mean even stricter rules around screen time and content. But the announcement also mentioned some other interesting directions, like requiring creators to obtain a license to provide content for teenagers and developing ways for the

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By: Zeyi Yang
Title: How China takes extreme measures to keep teens off TikTok
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Published Date: Wed, 08 Mar 2023 11:00:00 +0000

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