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Perspective

As myopia cases among youngsters rise, China makes a stand

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13 October 2021

13 October 2021

On August 30, state run media in China reported that children would be only allowed to play three hours of online games per week. The allotted times for the children under 18 years of age will be from 8-9 pm on Friday, Saturday and Sunday nights. “At other times, it is not allowed to provide online game services to minors in any form,” authorities said in their announcement.

The onus on ensuring this runs smoothly will be placed on the shoulders of video gaming companies. Young gamers will have to register in their real names and there may be a greater use of facial recognition software that already exists.

The news has been greeted with interest and curiosity around the world. Parents in all continents will be watching to see how it works and whether it can work. It is not only China where there are deep concerns.

An April report by the UK government said that the average screen time of 5-16 years old in the country was 6.3 hours.

The use of gadgets among young people was already widespread but then came the coronavirus. The global pandemic has had untold consequences on our daily lives, some of which will only become apparent in years to come. One clear consequence has however been an increase in social isolation. With governments around the world closing schools, ruling that many workers can do their jobs from home and temporarily closing restaurants, bars and other places of social interaction, it is no surprise that the world has become a little more introspective.

This has hastened the already widespread dependence of devices such as tablets, phones and laptops. Students need them to study at home, workers need them to do their jobs and when you can’t go out, there may be little else to do.

Consequences

The rise of screen time has been significant and there are obvious consequences. This global addiction to gadgets is impacting the eyesight of children. In a 2018 survey of one million school children aged 12 to 14 carried out the Economist in 2018, it was found that 72 percent had myopia, up from 58 percent in 2010. In China this is especially serious with the World Health Organisation (WHO) reporting in 2018 that the rate of myopia among Chinese children was the highest in the world. A poll a year later said that almost 83 percent of parents thought that the rise of electronic gadgets was the reason behind the deterioration of eyesight deterioration.

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It is not just down to devices. A lack of exposure to daylight is another factor according to researchers. If children are staying home more, then just not going out can damage their eyesight. And then there is the obvious point that a more sedentary lifestyle can have various negative health consequences. It was also reported that people in the UK with higher screen times as children were likelier in later life to take drugs, drink and/or smoke.

China’s response

The Chinese government has been worried about time spent on gadgets for years and has some of the strictest rules on playing video games. In 2019, players had to register with a game using their real names and ID numbers. There were also rules that limit children to 90 minutes of gameplay a day, though this could be doubled on public holidays. There is also a curfew which is aimed at stopping minors playing between 10 pm and 8am. The amount of money young players can spend on a game is also capped. President Xi Jinping has expressed his concern about the use of devices in the past and the latest ruling does not come as a big surprise.

Enter football

As well as laws, there can be other ways to reduce screen time, including the sport of football.

In recent years, China has been working hard to improve their standing in the football world. Much of the attention from around the world has been focused on Chinese Super League clubs signing world famous players and coaches but there has been some coverage on the improvements made to youth development. China may have a massive population but only if children play football on a regular basis can the country genuinely become a global powerhouse on the field.

Becoming one of the best teams in the world in the world’s most popular sport is a worthy target in its own right but regardless of whether China actually wins the World Cup, it brings other benefits, benefits that socially and in terms of health align with already-existing state policies.

A study by a mental and physical health organisation in the UK found that of over 9,000 adults and youngsters who play football at the grassroots level reported:

  • significantly higher levels of happiness, general health, confidence and trust compared with those who play no sport and also, other sports.
  • a stronger belief that playing football has improved their confidence, concentration, motivation, and social mixing, compared with individual and other team sports. This was especially high among female players.

 

The more children that turn to football as a main leisure activity, the better it is for any country. It is easy to play, even for those who are not so naturally talented, and little equipment is needed, though space is important. It is obviously an excellent form of physical exercise which promotes physical and mental well-being and results in a healthier population, reducing the demands on health services. When people become fitter, then their diet can also become healthier too.

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More than that, in China, a country with a long-standing ‘One-child’ policy, playing football offers an excellent education in other ways -- teamwork for one. It teaches young people the value of working together and offers an experience in learning to lose as well as learning to win. All can see that a team needs people of all kinds of skills and abilities. There are some who are naturally quick and have natural talent, some who read the game quickly, some who are naturally strong and others who can anticipate where the ball is going to be -- the important part is that if they work together then they can have success.

Inspiration

Rules to limit screen time can offer a foundation for a more active lifestyle. Offering children a place to play football easily and comfortably is another important step but there is always inspiration needed, especially in the beginning.

Assuming that China improves in football and starts to become an Asian powerhouse and then, after that, a force in world football, then history and legends will be made in epic international encounters -- beating Japan in the Asian Cup final, losing to Brazil on penalties in the quarter final of the World Cup. Such images and stories will automatically feedback into the hundreds of millions of children all around the country. This is what has happened historically in Europe and South America, where adults talk of childhoods spent watching an amazing game on television and then running outside immediately to play football with their friends.

One day, that will happen in China but until it does, a push from outside can make a difference. If global stars such as Cristiano Ronaldo, one of the biggest names in the world with hundreds of millions of young fans, can step in, it can make a real difference. One of the best players in the history of the game can encourage children that while playing football online or on consoles can be great fun, it is nothing compared to the joy of having a ball at your feet and playing with friends -- not just with FIFA on consoles but actually outside.

Join us in writing the future of football

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