Nearly one year into the pandemic, parents are watching their kids slide down a slippery slope into an all-consuming digital existence.
When we went into lockdown last year, many parents relaxed restrictions on screens as a stopgap way to keep their children entertained and engaged. But as computers, tablets and phones became the centrepiece of school and social life, and weeks of stay-at-home bled into a year, limits vaporised, alarming parents and scientists.
It's hard to break the habit
"There will be a period of epic withdrawal," said Keith Humphreys, professor of psychology at Stanford University. It will, he said, require young people to "sustain attention in normal interactions without getting a reward hit every few seconds".
Scientists say that children's brains, well through adolescence, are considered "plastic", meaning they can adapt and shift to changing circumstances. That could help younger people find satisfaction in an offline world, but it becomes harder the longer they immerse in rapid-fire digital stimulation.
Early in the pandemic, paediatrician Dr Jenny Radesky, based in Michigan, US, told parents not to feel guilty about allowing more screen time, given the stark challenges of lockdowns. But she admits she'd have given different advice if she had known how long children would end up stuck at home. "I probably would have encouraged families to turn off WiFi except during school hours, so kids don't feel tempted," she said.
A lack of analogue habits
The concern is not just over teens and tweens. Legions of children under 10 are giving countless hours to games like Fortnite. According to Qustodio, a company that tracks usage on devices used by children worldwide, screen time doubled by May as compared with the same period in the year prior.
Children say they turn to screens because they have no alternate activities or entertainment - this is where they meet friends or go to school.
What concerns researches is that the use of devices is a poor substitute for activities known to be central to health, social and physical development, such as physical play and other interactions that help children learn how to confront challenging social situations.
Humphreys believes that, with disciplined time away from devices, adults and children could learn to disconnect. But doing so has become complicated by the fact that these devices are vessels for school, social life, entertainment and other activities central to life.
He called this concept "bundling", and said it created particular challenges because so many kinds of rewards were mingled together that it could be hard to separate good from bad.
For instance, people who visit a bar to meet friends may find it harder to quit smoking because there is the extra reinforcement of alcohol and friendship mixed into the experience. Similarly, Humphreys said, children now associate their devices with multiple forms of pleasure, and so, disconnecting them has been like "trying to preach abstinence in a bar".
Escape from real life
Radesky said that the mingling of these functions not only gives children a chance to multi-task, it also allows them to escape uncomfortable moments. For instance, if they are doing schoolwork that bores them, she said, they can easily move into a "pleasure cocoon" by switching to watching YouTube, chatting with friends or playing a game.