Here Are China’s Latest Plays to Fight Smartphone Addiction

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12:19 AM HKT, Fri April 13, 2018 2 mins read

The sudden and unstoppable rise of smartphone culture in China brought a lot of great things. We got WeChat, probably the world’s most advanced all-in-one social media/messenger platform. We got mobile payment and shared bikes, as well as the necessary infrastructure to support the country’s impressive e-commerce boom. We also got food delivery from every restaurant ever, for which we are exceedingly thankful.

But every positive development has its evil side — in China, the smartphone boom came part and parcel with a huge jump in smartphone addiction.

We wouldn’t say that lightly if it weren’t a well documented thing. In June, a 13-year-old jumped from his fourth story balcony after his father scolded him for spending hours on mobile game King of Glory instead of studying. In the hospital, the child demanded his father bring him his phone, so he could log back into the game. Also last year, a 21-year-old woman went blind in one eye, diagnosed with a Retinal Artery Occlusion after playing the game continuously for hours on end.

The rise of zhai nan (宅男) and zhai nü (宅女) — literally, home boy and home girl — is another manifestation of the smartphone lifestyle. The phrase refers to people whose lives revolve around phones and staying indoors — when you can get entertainment, food, sexual comfort, some degree of professional productivity, and social interaction all from your phone, getting up and going outside suddenly becomes a lot less attractive.

So in the wake of all this, China’s government has been letting loose a wave of decrees aiming to save people from their phones.

For one, short video platform Douyin just introduced an “anti-obsession” measure that alerts users when they’ve been spending too much time on it. The app is similar to, and lets you perform an impressive range of edits to make your videos pop — basically, it just helps you take selfie videos. You can link them up to timing on songs, and emphasize cute hand gestures and kawaii facial expressions… basically all the video editing capabilities you’d need to entrance an audience of Chinese teenagers.

The app will cycle automatically, from one hypnotic six-second video to the next, without pause. It kind of did for short smartphone videos in China what Vine did overseas, but with the editing feature built-in.

A Douyin video compilation

Now though, when you watch selfie videos for 90 continuous minutes, the app will deliver a message, which we imagine probably says something like yo are you sure about this, bro? Once you’ve watched for two hours in one day, you’ll be automatically logged out, and need to log in again and do some serious self-evaluation before you continue. Live streaming and comments have also been disabled, though only temporarily while Douyin undergoes a mysterious “system upgrade.”

Tencent, too, has suspended the ability to play short-form videos in its WeChat and QQ messaging apps. Now, instead of playing right there inside the app, where the videos can easily sink their cybernetic teeth into the vulnerable attention spans of Chinese youth, they have to be pasted and clicked on as outside links. That’s like ten extra seconds! Ah yes, capitalizing on short attention spans as a means of discouraging involvement in short attention span-focused content. Quite ingenious.

Regulation of social media and online content is changing daily at dizzying speeds, to the point that it’s nearly impossible to keep up with. But we’re going to do our best — stay tuned.

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