- By Jamie Roberton and Natalia Jorquera: ITV News
Parents and psychologists have warned of a technology addiction crisis in the UK, with one mother telling ITV News of how her teenage son "simply stopped functioning" because of his obsession with video games.
Kendal Parmar revealed how her 15-year-old son went from a talented pupil and gifted rugby player to a complete recluse whose addiction to gaming and technology has had a devastating impact on him and his family.
Now aged 15, he has stopped playing rugby, seeing friends and has not been to school for over a year. The situation recently escalated to a point where he stopped eating and washing, leaving him requiring urgent psychiatric help.
“It’s heartbreaking to see him and his life being wasted away," she said. "His life is only online now, he has no friends - he was incredibly popular - so everything has reduced to being an online version of him, there’s no offline version of him."
"He’s not engaged with anything - he just continually wants to play the game that he’s into and that’s Fortnite at the moment. It’s even too much of a hassle to talk, to walk and even engage with any of his family.
“We have all lost him."
She is now urging the NHS to take the issue seriously and officially diagnose her son with a technology and gaming addiction.
Her decision to speak out comes as a Parliamentary inquiry into the impact of screen-time on young people is launched, and just months after the World Health Organisation (WHO) classified gaming addiction as a mental health disorder.
Dr Richard Graham, who set up one of the UK's first technology addiction clinics at the private Nightingale Hospital in central London, argues the NHS is failing to keep up with a problem that he believes is emerging at an "extraordinary and relentless pace".
He is now calling for technology to be recognised on the same level as gambling, alcohol and drug addiction.
"For a parent or young person trying to get help through the health service now, our models there are still rooted in the last century," he told ITV News.
"There are people suffering now that are not getting the services they need. This is slowly becoming a public health issue. We have seen concerns in the US and I think it's starting to happen here too.
"We just can't wait - we have to get on to this now."
Belinda Parmar was once a passionate supporter of technology, founding the firm Lady Geek to involve more girls and women in tech.
But, increasingly disturbed by her own family's own problematic relationship with tech, she decided to launch the TheTruthAboutTech.com to raise awareness of addiction and to hold the biggest gaming and social media companies to account.
"This situation is so urgent because we have parents that don’t know how to manage their children's tech, kids going in to schools exhausted, governments who are not doing anything about it and big tech companies not taking responsibility," she says.
"The impact on our kids - we just don’t know. When we look back at this era in society, we will be saying what were we thinking? Why were we giving our children so much unfettered access?"
Kendal, a mother of five, is hugely critical of the mental health services that she has encountered during her son’s struggle, accusing specialists of “being too rigid” and failing to even try to understand the depth of the problem.
“Mental health professionals need to start talking about it instead of just trying to put it in their nice, neat categories that they have already got that it doesn’t fit with - if it was drug addiction, we would have been supported.”
What would she say to the parents that question whether she, as a mother, could have been stricter and tackled her son’s addiction to games earlier?
“My other children manage technology - some people can handle it and some people can’t. There are no warnings on any of the games on the level of addiction and something in them that sucks him in and there’s nothing left.
“When he plays any of these games like Fortnite - even if we were being burgled or the house was on fire - nothing matters apart from that and getting to the next level and the next level.”
Kendal - who has worked closely with technology as the co-founder of Untapped AI - recalls having to lock devices in a safe and even call the police on several occasions due to her son’s violent and aggressive outbursts when she has attempted to stop him playing the games
The teenager has also resorted to stealing cables and re-routing the internet in order to get back online.
“He’d do anything to get the tech back,” she explains.
For Kendal, the physical consequences of the addiction have been just as painful to witness as the emotional.
“He gets lots of headaches, his legs hurt, he has aches down his legs when he walks. The colour of his skin - he looks grey. His posture - it’s distressing to watch.”
Kendal says her decision to speak out was motivated not just by her desire to get long-overdue help for her own son, but also to raise awareness of a "silent addiction" that she believes is afflicting so many other young people and adults in the UK.
"We are still in this right now, we haven’t come out of the other end - we are not in OK Magazine yet," she says.
“It’s such a silent addiction, it’s in our house; it doesn’t affect society; he’s just shut in his room and that’s why I wanted to talk today - it must be affecting so many other children and it’s only going to get worse.
“At the moment it’s silent but the effect on this generation, without proper mental health expertise - god knows.”
- If you are in distress or need some support, the Samaritans are available 24 hours a day on 116 123 or through their website.