Midnight Patrol is techno-parenting gone too far

Technology and parenting have intersected for some time. Parents monitor their children’s locations through mobile phones, new parents watch their babies through monitors. Technology has brought parents and children closer than ever before, and as a parent myself, I can understand why some parents want to keep their children as safe as possible.

Tencent, the huge Chinese conglomerate responsible for numerous video games and other media, has taken the two one-step too far with the introduction of Midnight Patrol. Using AI facial recognition technology, Midnight Patrol stops young children from playing games too late at night.

In order to circumnavigate the technology, adults will need to sign up with real names and some form of facial ID. If someone can’t provide those, games will assume the user is a child and will lock them out of video games between the hours of 10pm and 8am.

It’s a move that aims to reduce the number of children playing games till the late hours of the morning. The motives are positive, as video game addiction amongst adults and children is a real problem. However, this gross invasion of personal freedom and liberties is not the right way to go about it. This just feels like the beginning of a worrying trend in techno-parent, and we aren’t sure where it might end. 

Just the beginning 

So far, Tencent’s Midnight Patrol technology works with over 60 of the nation’s most popular video games. One of the best known is China’s equivalent of PUBG, Game For Peace. The software is extending to all video games, as China takes an all-or-nothing approach when it comes to social reform. While the arguments against video game addiction are entirely valid, Midnight Patrol isn’t the best answer. 

PUBG Mobile re-released as bloodless 'Game of Peace' so Tencent can  monetise it in China | PCGamesN
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Game For Peace

Midnight Patrol takes the power away from parents, removing their ability to teach their children the dangers of addiction. Midnight Patrol will probably stop children for a short while, but kids find a way. While at secondary school, the IT department would regularly block Google. I, like many other kids in my year, always found a way to get back on Google. Whether it was using an international version or finding a proxy. Children are better at using the internet than governments and regulators, they will find a way. 

China is no stranger to taking an overly aggressive stance in how it governs its people - i.e. The Great Leap Forward - but it isn’t too much of a stretch to imagine AI technology like Midnight Patrol making its way to America and Europe. It also likely won’t be long until China incorporates the same restrictions on Western games released in China. 

Where is the line?

Midnight Patrol just feels like the start. Technology is a pivotal part of our day-to-day lives, and that goes for children as well. Many children spend their time at school staring at screens, and then in the evenings many are also playing games or spending time on their phone. As the line between the virtual world and the real world continues to blur, it’s important that we teach children how to browse the internet responsibly. The only problem is that strong-arming with AI technology leaves no room for nuance. It is simply a yes or no answer, when the one of the best ways to help children learn is by providing context.

There’s also the inevitable question of, how much can we trust AI technology? We are fast approaching an AI focused world. Facial recognition technology is being implemented across the world, in the hope to catch criminals on the run from the law. There’s one major problem though. The AI used for London’s trial of facial recognition technology failed 80% of the time. The London Metropolitan Police ended up stopping a number of innocent people, and many considered the trial a failure. 

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The stakes aren’t quite so high with Midnight Patrol, but there’s still room for failure. So whether kids find a way around the technology, or if it simply fails, it still isn’t addressing the root of the problem which is the intersection of technology between kids and parents. Rather than relying on AI to curb bad gaming habits, governments should instead educate parents. Teaching children from a young age helps them avoid habits that can span a lifetime. Simply blocking them and making them wait till encourages the addictive behavior. 

Where does it end?

Midnight Patrol does raise the question of what might come next? It starts with using AI to check the age of children, but similar tech could be used in movies, music or even books. At that point, you’ve got an AI device limiting an individual’s access to media and information, which is pretty a pretty scary concept. 

Will we see the further use of AI to parent our children? As technology becomes more and more prevalent in our day-to-day lives, it’s likely governments will introduce additional measures and technologies to make individuals conform. While China ultimately created these measures with the best intentions in mind, AI and sweeping rule changes provide little room for nuance. Nuance is vital in raising kids, it’s how we all pass on our skills, abilities, knowledge, thoughts and feelings. 

The government simply telling parents how, when and where kids can access online materials is not good, but it is likely just the starting point.

Read more: China’s WeChat mass deletes LGBT accounts as anti-queer rhetoric spreads

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