Media's role critical in juvenile online gaming

By YANG BINYAN / 11-11-2020 / (Chinese Social Sciences Today)

A girl plays the online game Honor of Kings on her smartphone in a theater. Photo: CHINA DAILY

Recently, the China Game Industry Research Institute was launched in Shanghai, as part of efforts to build the city into a hub for global esports and game innovation. Meanwhile, esports competitions based on online games have been raging, and Chengdu has decided that the esports industry is key for the development of the digital economy and the cultural sector. While the industry shows great promise and esports have become a new form of employment, juveniles' participation in online games is a different story, public opinions are tepid.
Media representations
Playing online games is common among teenagers. According to over a decade's worth of data surveying the internet use of minors in China, online gaming remains in the top three most commonly used internet functions for juveniles. 
Survey data from 2006 to 2017 shows that games, chatting, and music were the most popular internet applications for youth, with a much wider popularity than other apps. Teenage online gaming often draws media attention, and reports invite extensive public discussions, particularly among parents. 
Renowned American communication scholar Walter Lippmann pointed out that in modern society where mass communication is highly developed, the symbolic reality (namely the pseudo-environment) generated after the selective processing of communication media is an important channel for people to closely interact with reality, and the pseudo-environment affects the subjective reality in people's minds. Mass media doesn’t serve as a mirror, reflecting objective reality, but deviates from it, creating a pseudo reality. 
From the theoretical perspective of juvenile socialization, the impact of online gaming on teenagers is complicated. The majority of parents and the general public are deeply influenced by media coverage and online public opinion when making sense of the online gaming behavior of teenagers. 
This article attempts to observe and analyze juvenile online gaming by using big data to quantify online public opinion, discovering underlying social problems and unpacking media representations of the issue. Online public opinions can not only comprehensively reflect media and the public (parental) concern towards teenage online gaming, but also reveal the pseudo-environment constructed by the media and its possible impacts on public behavior. 
Public opinion
Generally, the topic of juvenile online gaming is not trending. Online attention is medium-high. The Guangzhou-based Urun Big Data company's public opinion monitoring system gathered data from Jan.1 to Dec. 31, 2019 via online news, including news websites and apps, and original posts on Sina Weibo, the Chinese equivalent to Twitter. 
From January to December 2019, there were approximately a total of 9,678 pieces of information on the internet concerning juvenile online gaming, consisting of 2,665 pieces of internet news and 7,013 Weibo posts. The content fell into six categories: research reports and interpretations, suggestions, media scrutiny, government administration, legislative governance, and cases of online game addiction. 
Among these, research reports and interpretations composed the largest share, accounting for 36% of the total online content, followed by suggestions (15%) and media scrutiny (13%).  
When it comes to data from social media sites like Weibo, the public opinion monitoring system of Urun Big Data shows that there were more than 9 million original posts regarding online games or mobile games, but only over 7,000 posts were related to teenagers, accounting for less than 0.1% of the total posts. Therefore, juvenile online gaming was not an intense topic in 2019. 
Concerning juvenile online gaming, game addiction received a lot of attention, and media reports were mostly negative. Of the top 10 pieces of internet news in 2019, seven talked about addiction to online games, highlighting the negative influence of online gaming on juveniles. The remaining three could be regarded as neutral, touching upon the effect of game addiction on physical and mental health as well as eyesight of teenagers, and two of these blogs called for legislation and control.
On the Weibo platform, online gaming was a topic that inspired high parental participation, and received much attention from official and government accounts, research institutions, media and social organizations, public security departments, legal supervisors (procurators), and cyberspace administrations. 
Regarding online news or Weibo posts, a fair proportion was concerned with how to handle juvenile online gaming. Public opinions tended to view gaming as a problem. The government, research institutions and related social organizations were the most important actors on these platforms. Their input was inseparable from the public opinion, which in 2019 heavily featured calls to protect minors in cyberspace.
In major news reports about juvenile online gaming, national concerns, initiatives, regulations on online game addiction, consumption in gaming, and eyesight protection were major themes throughout 2019. These topics also led the top 10 pieces of related news in 2019. Thus the media and the government had a tacit agreement on the issue of teenage gaming. 
At the same time, private enterprises and online game platforms spoke less about juvenile gaming. Research reports and interpretations, governance, legislation and media scrutiny accounted for 64% of their online content. In news coverage and public participation, government agencies, experts and scholars, research institutions and mass media were major speakers. 
Groups within the gaming industry, such as online game producers, service providers, and promoters were not very vocal. The one exception was during the Two Sessions period of 2019, when the heads of internet giants Tencent and Netease joined the discussion about juvenile online gaming as deputy to the National People's Congress (NPC) and member of the Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference (CPPCC), respectively.
Different perspectives
In the media, juvenile online gaming is a topic accompanied by the responsibilities and obligations of adults for minors. Media coverage is focused on the negative impacts of online gaming on juveniles. The dominant agenda set by media and shared in public opinion is that online gaming is detrimental to juveniles. 
Media coverage conveys the following concerns: Addiction to online games will affect the physical and mental health of teenagers; there are many cases where juveniles pay huge amounts of money for online gaming, imposing financial burdens on parents; and some companies with a weak sense of social responsibility design virtual scenarios that go against mainstream social values. 
Sociologists and researchers who study juveniles have reached a consensus on considering teenagers a proactive social subject. In the process of socialization, juveniles share the same social culture as adults. They are not only influenced by adults, but also act as an independent group in the social structure, participating in the construction of social cultures. Therefore, when considering juveniles as proactive actors, the impacts of online gaming are complex. 
Undeniably, online gaming as a new entertainment form has several advantages. Playing online games is convenient and cheap, offering a crucial channel for teenagers to relax and entertain themselves. Virtual gaming experiences are of special significance to the socialization of minors. The sense of participation in online games and social networks meets the group’s growth need and boosts their development. Immersive experiences in simulated life and digital society are essentially social experiments in a safe mode. Surreal experiences in online games can train teenagers’ imagination and creativity. 
Based on current media reports and public opinions online, juvenile online gaming is characterized by functionalism. In other words, teenagers must be educated and shaped by adult society, to shelter them from risky social problems caused by online game addiction. Adult society must properly guard against and handle these risks. 
On the contrary, online game designers and producers always hope that users play as many games as possible and keep playing them. Attracting and retaining users is one of the primary goals for the development and design of online games. 
However, teenagers are in a critical stage of physical and mental growth and learning knowledge, so online game addiction becomes a huge concern for parents. Numerous real cases have proved that online game addiction can have a tremendous impact on juveniles, bringing great harm to their healthy development.  
All in all, juvenile online gaming is a serious topic to parents and to the media. It concerns the construction of cyber culture, the growth of teenagers, the harmony of families, and the building of a cyber power. Media should amplify its role in guiding public opinion about quality education, family education and relationships between parents and children, using their platforms to spread scientific notions, organize studies on problems, disseminate strategies, monitor and evaluate effects, and warn about the risks of juvenile online gaming.  
Yang Binyan is an associate research fellow from the Institute of Journalism and Communications at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences.