The number of children and young adults entering treatment for gaming addictions and disorders tripled over the last year, with experts believing that the pandemic and lockdowns play a key role in the increase.
The clinic, part of the National Centre for Behavioural Addictions, opened in 2019 as the country’s first specialist clinic to treat children and young adults who are addicted to playing video games. The clinic opened a year after the World Health Organization recognised “gaming disorder” as a medical condition.
The figures, obtained by the Guardian via freedom of information requests, show that 17 people entered treatment between January and May 2020, but over the same period in 2021 the number rose to 56.
The Nightingale hospital, a private hospital that specialises in treating mental health disorders, also saw a rise in referrals and individuals seeking treatment for gaming and technology addictions. The hospital said that between March to June and July to September 2020, the number of inquiries received regarding technology addiction doubled, with the majority of them regarding parents seeking support for their children. In 2021, the hospital has seen a fourfold increase in inquiries.
Patrick Maxwell, the lead addictions therapist for Nightingale hospital, said the pandemic has a significant impact on the rise of inquiries, and that in younger children especially, technology addiction presents itself more in the form of gaming.
“I think that with the pandemic and its effects on home schooling, it has definitely given children more exposure to screen time that we’ve ever had before,” he said.
“Because they were at home, parents’ awareness of how much screen time their child was using increased, so I think that provoked anxiety within the parents through their observations of their children.”
Dr Henrietta Bowden-Jones, the lead on gaming addictions at the Royal College of Psychiatrists, said that the closure of schools during lockdown had a significant impact on young people with gaming disorder.
“Many of our young patients reported [that] the loss of structure caused them to game for longer hours and more compulsively, to the detriment of other interests and activities including family time.
“For several of our patients the escalation of gaming caused a shift in the family dynamics, with attempts by parents to block the gaming causing the children to respond with anger and at times with physical aggression.
“The last year has brought far more patients into treatment than we had expected and now need to review how we will support both parents and children in such large numbers.”
Dr Linda Papadopolous, an ambassador for the internet safety not-for-profit organisation Internet Matters, said the data was worrying.
“Over the past year, young people have relied heavily on their devices to socialise and for their downtime, and while there have been many positives, parents may be worried about the amount of time their children spend online and the risks associated with it,” she said.
“While the data is worrying, there are some key signs parents should look out for to help their children find a healthy balance before gaming turns into a problem. Some children might begin to show a lack of interest in their usual hobbies, spend less time with real-life friends and their schoolwork might start to suffer. Complaining of headaches and problems with sleep can also be symptoms.
She added that it was “important for parents to speak with children about gaming addiction from an early age so they can develop their own healthy boundaries”.