James Erskine dreads the end of game-time for his nine-year-old son Freddie. The boy loves Roblox and Among Us, and long has. But prying Freddie away from the screen is a challenge his father could do without on a Saturday and Sunday morning.
"There is chaos," Erskine admits. "There are pleas for a few more minutes, begging and citing other friends being able to play."
Erskine swaps war stories with other parents, some of whom unplug the internet in the whole house just to get their children off devices.
The father-of-two, chief executive of digital marketing firm Rocket, says: "The pandemic was the time that my little boy went from enjoying using games to needing to use games."
As the pandemic shut down schools and other activities, children’s time playing games rocketed. And with it, so have levels of dependency.
Video game addiction was added to the World Health Organization’s International Classification of Diseases in May 2019. As games have become more immersive and realistic, we’ve all become more likely to play them.
Gaming deaddiction clinics are beginning to mushroom and reports say referrals to specialist video gaming clinics in the UK has risen threefold in the past year. In all, 56 people began treatment for video game addiction between January and May 2021, up from 17 in the same period of 2020.
The Nightingale, a private gaming addiction clinic, has seen a fourfold increase in enquiries since it opened, and a survey found that four in 10 parents in UK are now worried their children are addicted to screens.
"Parents tell us that they are overwhelmed by the compulsions the children present with, and nothing they have tried to stop them gaming has worked," says Prof Henrietta Bowden-Jones, founder and director of the National Centre for Gaming Disorders.
"Several have been hurt by their children in the ensuing fights that arise from them blocking the house Wi-Fi. The need for help is urgent and intense," she says.
"In lockdown, there was so much isolation, and, for some young adults, gaming gave them a sense of community," says Dee Johnson, an addiction psychotherapist based at the Priory Hospital in Chelmsford, Essex.
"There was a loss of daily connection, and physical connection, with friends and peers, so gaming gave them new friendships and new connections, and there was a positive impact in the early days.
"But gaming involves adrenalin drives and dopamine flooding, and you can see the ‘hooks’ all over it."
Estelle Keeber, from Leicester, noticed that her 12-year-old son was tired and grumpy in the mornings during lockdown, as he’d been playing into the early hours, and was often gaming when he was meant to be doing his schoolwork.
"Now he’s back at school, things are very much more into a routine. But the period during lockdown was extremely hard," says Keeber, who runs online business hub Immortal Monkey.
"As a single parent with their own business and who works from home, it was really difficult to manage having two children at home, home schooling them, and trying to keep them entertained. I think I’m probably not the only parent [in this situation]. Some parents are probably scared to admit the amount of time their kids are spending on games."
Excessive gaming can also have a financial impact: Johnson has heard from parents who have had thousands of pounds run up on their credit cards, or their children have set up credit cards in their name. Some have even secretly sold household items online to pay for their addiction.
Young people playing video games isn’t itself a sign of addiction. Neither does it have to do with how many hours they spend playing as much as their attitude towards gaming. There are a few things parents can look for, and the WHO has made these red flags very clear. One key difference between an obsessed and addicted child is the extent to which gaming takes over their life to the detriment of washing, eating or talking to friends.
Undoubtedly, there are those for whom addiction is significant, and a real concern. James Good, from Shropshire, dropped out of university because of his addiction to gaming – once spending 32 hours non-stop playing games. It took the help of a peer support group, Game Quitters, to recalibrate his relationship with games. "I feel like a new person, doing this chapter in my life," he says.
"During lockdown, games played an invaluable part in keeping loved ones of all ages connected and entertained, and have been cited by many as playing a significant part in maintaining good mental health," says a spokesman for UKIE, the games industry body. It seems, like all of us, kids are looking for a way to escape the challenges of the past year. The key for worried parents is to know when and where to draw the line.