Social media

5 ways China is forcing social media changes


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Social media applications are evolving rapidly in China. Pressure from the Chinese government to limit app addiction – especially among children – has triggered major changes from key players in the country. Douyin, the Chinese version of TikTok, has been particularly aggressive, with blackout times, built-in breaks, and time limits now standard on its app.

The Chinese government demanded these changes after seeing social apps cut back on children’s schoolwork and socialization time. Pushing them forward is betting that what children could lose in creativity and digital culture, they will catch up in terms of attention span and ambition. So we’re on the verge of witnessing an unprecedented natural experiment as to whether unrestricted access to social media is helping or harming children.

Here’s a look at five major changes in social media in China, along with some potential tradeoffs.

40-minute daily time limits

Children using Douyin, the Chinese version of TikTok, will only be able to use it for 40 minutes per day. Bytedance – the maker of Douyin and TikTok – said all children under the age of 14 would be subject to the limit. TikTok did not respond to whether it had any similar plans.

The app is closed to young people every night

If children under 14 try to use Douyin between 10 p.m. and 6 a.m., the app simply won’t work. These blackout hours remove social pressure for children to participate in social media conversations that take place late into the night, said Tristan Harris, president of the Center for Humane Technology. “It is literally as if Xi Jinping saw the social dilemma,” he said last week when discussing these changes with Joe Rogan. If everyone is on social media, you feel obligated to be there. If no one is on, you can sleep.

Five-second pauses between videos

Last month, Douyin said he would add five-second pauses between some videos. During these breaks, the app will display messages such as “hang up the phone”, “go to bed” or “work tomorrow”. The breaks might shock some people with mindless, endless rabbit holes. It also has population control vibes.

Educational content inserted in the thread

Douyin will show more educational content to children. The company said it will increase the number of informational videos appearing in the feed, including science experiments, museum exhibits, landscapes and history. It could be used for propaganda. It could also inspire children who use Douyin to develop passions for the sciences and the arts.

Video game ban

This summer, China grabbed the headlines by banning video games for children outside of the three-hour weekends. The ban could help break some video game addictions, but it’s risky. If the future of computing shifts to the so-called metaverse – where people interact as avatars in common online spaces – then video games are where it all begins. There are already kids experiencing this reality in places like Roblox and Fortnite. So removing them from video games could potentially set them back when it comes to struggling and thriving in this new digital world.