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 government to regulate the algorithms themselves. As the situation develops, we should expect to see more innovative measures taken in China to impose limits on Douyin and similar platforms.
As for the US, even getting to the level of China’s existing regulations around social media would require some big changes.
To ensure that no teens in China are using their parents’ accounts to watch or post to Douyin, every account is linked to the user’s real identity, and the company says facial recognition tech is used to monitor the creation of livestream content. Sure, those measures help prevent teens from finding workarounds, but they also have privacy implications for all usersand I don’t believe everyone will decide to sacrifice those rights just to make sure they can control what children get to see.
We can see how the control vs. privacy trade-off has previously played out in China. Before 2019, the gaming industry had a theoretical daily play-time limit for underage gamers, but it couldn’t be enforced in real time. Now there is a central database created for gamers, tied to facial recognition systems developed by big gaming publishers like Tencent and NetEase, that can verify everyone’s identity in seconds.
On the content side of things, Douyin’s teenager mode bans a slew of content types from being shown, including videos of pranks, “superstitions,” or “entertainment venues”—places like dance or karaoke clubs that teenagers are not supposed to enter. While the content is likely selected by ByteDance employees, social media companies in China are regularly punished by the government for failing to conduct thorough censorship, and that means decisions about what is suitable for teens to watch are ultimately made by the state. Even the normal version of Douyin regularly takes down pro-LGBTQ content on the basis that they present “unhealthy and non-mainstream views on marriage and love.”
There is a dangerously thin line between content moderation and cultural censorship. As people lobby for more protection for their children, we’ll have to answer some hard questions about what those social media limits should look like—and what we’re willing to trade for them.