ES Lifestyle newsletter

Children addicted to computers and phones during lockdown — “zoning out” for up to 20 hours a day — may struggle to hold conversations with classmates and teachers when schools return this week, experts warn today.

Parents have reported teenagers failing to wash, sleep or eat due to excessive screen time on smartphones and tablets. In one extreme example, a five-year-old boy started speaking in an American accent. Referrals have more than doubled since lockdown at the NHS’s first gaming addiction clinic in Earl’s Court, west London.

The Centre for Internet and Gaming Disorders officially opened for 13- to 25-year-olds seriously addicted to computer games like Fortnite and Candy Crush in October. In the first four months, they received 15 referrals. But this leapt by another 37 between March and August.

Psychotherapist Maria Garcia, of London’s private Nightingale Hospital in Marylebone which treats technology addition, is concerned that children with social anxiety will struggle when schools reopen. Many would have treated being at home glued to devices since March due to Covid-19 restrictions as a comfort blanket. She told the Standard: “The danger of us not treating technology addiction is a rapid decline in mental health. It will affect everything — relationships and self-worth.” The World Health Organisation has recognised gaming addiction as a medical disorder.

Half of parents with school-age children worry that their children are becoming addicted to computer games, a recent survey by Internet Matters found. Ofcom says that most children were lacking structure during lockdown and tended to fill their time alone in their rooms with online activities, including social media, gaming and watching content.

One girl, Josie, 15, told researchers for the watchdog’s new Life in Lockdown study she would stay up late — sometimes until 3am — scrolling through content by Essex-born YouTuber Thomas “TomSka” Ridgewell. These late nights meant she woke up around midday. After getting something to eat, she would spend the rest of the day in bed viewing Netflix, YouTube, TikTok and Amazon Firestick until about 5pm when her mother finished work. The two of them would then go for a walk.

William, 16, meanwhile, claimed he spent about 20 hours a day online, before eventually falling “asleep while on FaceTime”.

Jack, 15, reported playing a racing game to such an extent that his grandmother offered him £500 as an incentive to leave his room for ­mealtimes.

On Mumsnet, one exasperated mother writing anonymously as ladyandthechocolate said last week: “I’m sure I’m not the only one in this situation! Over lockdown and the holidays my children are having way too much screen time. The boys are gaming on the PlayStation 4 and Nintendo Switch. The issue is when we kick them off, they seem to not be able to function as normal. They have completely lost the capacity to entertain themselves and don’t want to do anything. When schools go back, we are contemplating a complete screen ban for a period of time with the possible exception of a few family movies. I feel the kids need a factory reset.”

Another mother, under the username AvoidingRealHumans, added: “Before Covid, I only allowed screen time at weekends and weekdays during the holidays. It has skyrocketed now — the time they spend on it sickens me.”

A third mother, Jellycatspyjamas, said: “I’ve kept my two busy as far as possible. But if they’re home, they are constantly counting the minutes until they can have screen time — any chat centres around Minecraft or Adopt Me!.”

Although she vowed to introduce a weekday screen ban when schools return, the woman added: “There will be inevitable kick off but I think the pain will be worth it to get back into a proper routine. They just can’t self-regulate screen use.”

Mrs Garcia, the Nightingale’s therapy service manager, said it was not uncommon for youngsters to spend 14 hours a day on their smartphones and tablets. But she worries what will happen when schools reopen after the traditional summer holidays. “In terms of children who are addicted to technology, it becomes more apparent when they no longer have lockdown to hide behind. If you had social anxiety or were introverted, going into lockdown was a relief. They’ve been able to relax and be themselves at home. They would rather be on their own with their screens. Now they’re having to go back to school and face people again. Having conversation with other pupils and teachers could be difficult.

“The danger of not treating technology addiction is a rapid decline in mental health. It will affect everything — relationships and self-worth.”

Mrs Garcia said it was parents who initially raised concerns about their children’s compulsive behaviour. “The technology starts to take over and has consequences in their lives. It’s not a situation where the child can stop going back to the phone, it’s having a real impact on their wellbeing. There’s the lack of sleep, sometimes 12 to 14 hours online, missing meals, not showering and having problems with their family. When the parents contact us, it’s because it’s getting out of control.”

At the Nightingale, as part of an initial six- to eight-week therapy, addicts are requested to go cold turkey with complete abstinence from technology. Young people are asked to use so-called “dumbphones”, basic mobiles without internet connection, to control their impulses. In discussions, they are questioned why they feel the need to go online rather than chatting to family and friends.

Mrs Garcia added: “Often they say: ‘I’m bored’. Sometimes it’s about avoiding, wanting to escape from stress and life’s problems. That’s indicative of an addiction when it’s not fun anymore.” Intense psychotherapy, to understand the root causes of the behaviour, prevents relapses before technology is gently reintroduced under supervision.

Mrs Garcia admits some people will never have an entirely normal relationship with technology. “The stimulation we get from screens is very intense,” she said. “Once you start looking at something, there’s a link that takes you to more and more. Parents are saying, ‘I’m struggling and I need some help’.”

Family psychotherapist Rebecca Harris, at the Centre for Internet and Gaming Disorders run by the Central and North West London NHS Foundation, agreed: “We have definitely seen an increase in referrals in the last few months from parents or professionals. However, there is a difference between a disorder and just people spending too much time on their screens. Typically, it’s people who aren’t sleeping and staying up online, people might get upset if their parents intervene in gaming, or they’ve missed school.

“I would say to parents worried about the reopening of school to give it a chance for normal boundaries to come back into place. Even though they’ve been online, it’s still communicating with people.”

Her team works with parents on ways to build their children’s motivation and deal with conflict when gadgets are taken away. She said: “We’re looking for improvements in family relationships, behaviour and interaction with peers.

“Some are up all night because they are gaming with people around the world and that’s a really important social connection for them. It’s a complicated thing to intervene in.”