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What's behind China's new online gaming restrictions for kids?

A visit to a Chinese "detox" center for video game addicts
A visit to a Chinese "detox" center for video game addicts 03:11

Hong Kong — China's crackdown on online video gaming was in effect Thursday. Everyone in the country under the age of 18 — more than 268 million people, according to Chinese census data — is now restricted to just three hours of play per week. 

Children can game only on Fridays, Saturdays, Sundays and national holidays — and only between 8 p.m. and 9 p.m. on those days. Access to online games now requires real-name verification and log-in systems, and gaming companies can only allow youth players their three hours of service within those small time windows. 

Reaction to the new rules has been mixed. Some Beijing parents told CBS News they agreed that their children's time was better spent exercising or studying, while others criticized the move as government overreach into family life. 

"It seems to be part of a major push to really bring the government front and center into all elements of people's lives," Hong Kong-based technology and online media expert Paul Haswell told CBS News.   

China’s government cracks down on how long minors can play online video games 06:08

But the policy is part of a bigger push by Beijing to control not only personal habits, but to rein-in the overwhelming influence that technology has suddenly claimed in Chinese society, and the government's motivations go beyond just protecting kids.

"Electronic drugs," and digital detox

Chinese state media had telegraphed the government's frustration in the weeks leading up to the new policy by comparing video games to "electronic drugs" and "spiritual opium," eliciting memories of the 1800's, when millions of Chinese became addicted to smoking opium during the country's Opium Wars with the United Kingdom. 

"No industry can be allowed to destroy a generation," wrote China's Economic Information Daily on August 3. 

More than six in 10 Chinese minors play videogames online frequently, according to Chinese state media, while more than one in 10 play games on their mobile devices for more than two hours each day during the school week.    

Psychologist Lisa Damour on how to talk to your kids about video gaming habits 12:44

For some parents, the new gaming policy didn't come into effect soon enough. Many had already taken drastic action, forcing their internet-addict children into rehabilitation at digital "detox" centers in China. 

"I've been advocating for this for years," said Tao Ran, director of the Adolescent Psychological Development Base. "The Chinese government's strong measure this time is the most successful attempt in our fight against addiction."

CBS News visited Tao's facility about 20 miles outside of Beijing, where no technology is allowed. 

Right now, about 30 boys and girls are there, living out structured, boot-camp style days full of exercise and counseling. They share simple dorm rooms with other young patients and eat communally. Their parents often live there, too, as part of the holistic program to reintegrate children with their families and society. 

Tao, a former colonel in the People's Liberation Army with an expertise in psychology, said 85% of China's minors have some kind of internet addiction, which he called "enemy number-one for [personal] growth."

Inside a treatment center for video game addiction 02:50

His program costs about $1,850 per month, and most patients opt to stay for between three and six months, though he did have one family stay for 11 months. At its busiest, the center has more than 130 patients. Boys make up the majority, but Tao said he's seen more and more girls being checked in by loved ones. 

"The ratio of girls went from 10% to 30% in the past two years - a big jump," he said, which he attributed to a wider variety of online games becoming available, with broader appeal.

One man at the detox center told CBS News that he'd been there with his son every day for about a month, since the 17-year-old was suspended from school for three months. 

"He spent eight to nine hours each day online. Occasionally he'd be online all day and night, 24 hours. It's not just his problem. Our family didn't create enough love, so he had to look for replacement in games," said the father, who didn't want to be identified. "He initially wouldn't recognize he had a problem. After a few weeks he started to accept the fact that he has issues. He had a chance to self-reflect. My child is very social, and he schemed about escaping with other trainees when he first got in, but they didn't take any action."

A high school student who had already been at the facility for five months, with both of his parents joining him for the past month, told CBS News he had also been suspended from school after falling in with a group of friends "who could be considered bad influences."

"We spent whole nights at internet cafes, sometimes we drink alcohol, sometimes I don't go home for three or four days. I spent more than 10 hours a day online. At my worst I went to sleep every two days," the boy said. "Here, I have something to do. I wake up at 5:50 a.m. and do morning exercises and jogging. After lunch we have group therapy and lectures. I think it's hard for trainees to recognize the improvements… it's progressive. Every time you take a small step you won't realize how far you've climbed until you're already on the mountain top. When you've returned to real life people around you might see you in a different way."

But while the new rules may help keep more children out of centers like Tao's, it's not good news for the companies behind the games. 

What else is behind it?

"I think it's quite bad news for some of the homegrown tech companies" Haswell told CBS News of the new gaming limits. "I think Tencent is going to struggle the most." 

Tencent is the creator of the massively popular "Honor of Kings," the world's top-grossing video game for much of this year. On August 3, the same day the criticisms were published by Chinese state media outlets, Tencent's stock plunged 10%, shedding $60 billion in market capitalization. Its shares have managed to rebound since then.

"I think it's an attempt to try and bring more equality," said Haswell, a technology partner at Pinsent Masons. "At the same time, maybe it's a bit heavy handed, maybe the crackdown is now punishing those who have succeeded." 

Data over democracy: How China maintains power through technology 02:57

The new online gaming limits are part of a wide crackdown that goes well beyond videogames, and the motivation likely goes well beyond just protecting children. This year Beijing has targeted other massive firms in the technology sector, including Alibaba, often referred to as the Amazon of China, and Didi, known to many as the Uber of China, allegedly over personal data concerns.

Authorities have also changed the rules for popular online tutoring companies, long accused of giving people who can afford such services a competitive advantage over less wealthy families who cannot. They can no longer charge for their core academic services.

Some of China's biggest celebrities have also seen their online profiles wiped from China's internet over the past few months, for reasons that haven't exactly been made clear. 

Haswell says the overall crackdown on the digital space likely stems from a combination of factors, including how much data large technology companies have stored, how much influence individuals wield in Chinese society, and concerns over people gaining new, harder to monitor spaces to communicate.

"Remember, online games are, by their very nature, social. And it's another social space that would have to be regulated. Think of how much censorship is going on in terms of the internet in China," said Haswell. "The online chat rooms related to a game might be harder to moderate."

With this latest set of new rules, Beijing has made it clear that protecting — many would say policing — the country's next generations is more important than any corporate interest. It's also a clear message to those next generations, and the biggest companies in China, that there is no power greater than the ruling Communist Party.

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