The use of technology has soared during Covid lockdowns, leaving experts concerned about the long term implications for mental health in young people. Tanith Carey reports.
Like many parents, mother-of-two Donia Youssef was thankful for screens when the first lockdown began last March.
But as the months have worn on, with her two daughters Tiana 5, and Aliyah 8, using their iPads more than she would ever have wanted, Donia is deeply concerned about the effects.
"Tiana in particular has become much more angry and easily frustrated," says Donia, 42, author of the Monster series of children's books. "I've lost count of the amount of times she has thrown her iPad on the floor.
"On weekends, I take the iPads off both girls and we go for walks and their behaviour massively improves.
"But I can't ban their devices altogether because both girls have to be on their screens for school."
Children's use of screens has soared in the pandemic – in one study of 5000 British parents, three quarters said their child was now looking at a screen for nine hours per day, nearly double the average prior to the Covid outbreak.
Relaxing the rules on devices seemed a harmless and necessary stopgap during the first lockdown. But now, almost a year into the pandemic and with schools across Britain remaining shut until at least next month, researchers warn that tech habits are being permanently altered.
There are concerns about what this excessive screen use is doing to children's brains and psychological wellbeing. So what can we do to protect them?
In our all-consuming digital lives, it's hard enough for adults to stay concentrated on tasks in hand with notifications pinging, messages beeping and emails piling up.
But for children the battle is even greater, says Stefan Van Der Stigchel, professor of cognitive psychology at Utrecht University and author of Concentration, Staying Focussed in Time of Distraction.
"One of the brain areas involved in shutting out irrelevant information, the frontal cortex, doesn't mature until about 19 or 20," he says.
Online learning is more difficult for children because they have more motor energy they need to discharge through exercise.
"Boys in particular may spend so much concentration trying to keep still in a lesson, they have no energy left over to listen to what they are being taught."
What to do about it
Children – just like adults – will learn more easily if there are opportunities for interaction and social connection. Prioritise interactive activities rather than passive ones, and encourage them to discuss learning with peers.
If they're watching a lesson or learning online, ensure notifications are switched switched off. Incorporate exercise breaks, which is shown to improve focus.
Van der Stigchel recommends that parents set up a dedicated workspace with digital distractions kept out of sight.
Tell children concentration is a skill that can be improved, he adds: "Concentration is like a muscle. Even if their levels have gone down, they can still get them up again, with practice."
Remind them of why they are learning in the first place, too.
"When motivated, it's easier to ignore distractions.
" So you could give a younger child a star chart, or remind a teenager of which university or career they are ultimately working towards, even if they don't have GCSEs or A-Levels this summer."
Screens are as addictive as junk food, some experts believe. With tech now not only at the centre of young people's social lives, but also their schooling, there are fears of a period of "epic withdrawal" when "real life" resumes. Excessive use of screens and especially social media has been strongly linked to poor mental health.
For child health lecturer and psychologist Dr Aric Sigman, the concern is how much devices have distracted from other important activities, like exercise and face-to-face socialising, essential to child development.
"The concern is whether this intensive use will mean higher level of screen dependency problems after lockdown ends."
What to do about it
As we start weaning our children off their phones and consoles, Sigman says it will help parent's resolve if they start reframing screen use as "a straightforward medical issue".
He recommends a "digital sunset", in which devices are removed one to two hours before bedtime – and parents should role model the behaviour themselves. Agree time limits, especially on social media – one study by the University of Pennsylvania found limiting use of Facebook, Instagram and Snapchat to 10 minutes a day led to significant reductions in loneliness and depression.
Sigman suggests steering children away from texting and messaging friends towards face to face methods, like Facetime or Zoom calls.
Help them to recognise the signs and symptoms of gadget overuse for themselves – whether it's eye strain, back pain, or low mood or irritability.
"Screen use should be one of the many health issues parents speak to children about, in the same way as they talk to them about drinking or healthy eating."
Recent research by the Education Policy Institute found a strong link between heavy social media use and negative wellbeing and self-esteem among young people, regardless of their mental state, with more girls experiencing feelings of depression and hopelessness.
"In lockdown, children are spending more time on social media which is highly manufactured," says child clinical psychologist Dr Angharad Rudkin.
"Without the daily reality check of seeing friends in person, they think: 'My life's nothing like that. What's wrong with me?'"
What to do about it
One of the best ways to help children to feel good about themselves is to help them find new skills they can feel competent at according to Rudkin.
"Help kids and teens find little ways to challenge themselves, whether it's starting a new hobby or doing something like the Couch to 5K."
For younger children, self-esteem can be affected by spending an increased amount of time with parents who are busy with work and looking at screens themselves.
Rudkin says they process this as a rejection. She suggests consistently letting them know they remain the priority – and deliberately carving out more time for them.
"Five minute injections of time can make them feel important and valued."
Sleep clinics and specialists are reporting a huge rise in numbers of parents contacting them with concerns about their children's sleep. This is thought to be down to a toxic mix of more spent time inside, a lack of exercise, increased screen time and anxiety about Covid-19. "It's not just screens that are an issue but content," says Mandy Gurney, founder of The Millpond Sleep Clinic in London, which has seen a doubling in demand. "With a lot of older children, one thing parents say is they cannot get them to sleep as they have busy brains at bedtime."
Sleep is vital in helping children concentrate during the day and to balance their emotions.
What to do about it
Whatever the weather, prioritise "green" exercise – which will help them sleep well at night and provide a mood boost, says Sigman.
"There are new studies finding that more exposure to greenery does cause actual chemical changes in the brain, which benefits children's mental health and their ability to concentrate." Even a 20 minute burst can be transformative, he says.
* Tanith Carey is the co-author of 'What's My Child Thinking? Practical Child Psychology for Modern Parents'.