The eleven-year old son of a friend is back at school. Even as a key worker, his mother felt guilty requesting him a place, as her husband is currently at home. But as lockdown went on her boy seemed increasingly “lost”. Her daughters, 13, and 15, were flourishing in lockdown – 8am runs, cycle rides, baking, relishing some respite from the social grind – but George, who loves football and cricket and chess, missed seeing his friends. He was lonely, bored, and bereft.
With three teenage sons aged 13, 15 and 18, it’s no surprise to me that, anecdotally at least, boys have fared worse in lockdown than girls; suspicions that seem set to be confirmed by Sport England this week when they release data showing that girls have become more active than boys during lockdown.
Schools now have been shut since March 20 – much longer than the typical summer holiday.
It’s long been known that the six-week summer break has a negative impact on children’s overall health, as they swap the structure of playtime, PE and after-school activities like football and swimming lessons, for lie-ins, extra snacks and screen time. Known as ‘the summer spread’ a study last year, which monitored schoolchildren over a 13-month period, found that when children returned to classrooms in September, the average BMI of the whole group had increased, and the children suffered an 80 per cent loss in fitness.
Now the weeks spent at home have crept into double digits, and with lockdown rules, until recently, stating families should only leave home once a day to exercise, many are worried about health consequences for lockdowned children – particularly for boys.
Last Saturday, my husband and I left a fabulous outdoor dinner party at 10pm because of gang warfare at home. (One child was about to call the police on his brother). They’re frustrated, fed up, and fighting. The competitive joy, physical exertion and stress relief of team sport has been surrendered for months of hunching alone in their stuffy bedrooms, gaming. No wonder many are now warning of a calamitous effect on their physical and mental health.
Not that girls don’t miss team sport or enjoy gaming (according to US statistics, they make up 46 per cent of gamers). But according to a US study, with data from 963 parents of teenagers, published this January, 41 per cent of adolescent boys reportedly played video games every day, compared to only 20 per cent of teenage girls. Boys were also more likely than girls to spend more than three hours playing video games (37 per cent and 19 per cent respectively). No doubt every parent of a teenage boy is laughing so as not to cry at the vague optimism of “more than three hours”.
Dr Sophia Achab – a clinical expert for the World Health Organisation on addictive behaviours, a public health advisor on digital wellbeing, and founder of a pioneering clinic for internet use disorders in Switzerland – says that the unique situation of being confined at home increases the likelihood of developing problems. “Being locked down with unlimited access to devices, coupled with anxiety and non-stop availability of tech, is the perfect storm,” she says.
Certainly, just weeks into lockdown, statistics revealed a surge in time spent watching people game on services such as Twitch, with the streaming site seeing 179 per cent more traffic than usual. Game playing has risen 98 per cent. My hunch is that this isn’t caused by teenage girls who, research shows, are more likely to play games on their phones. Boys are also more likely to play an online game against other players (65 per cent vs 31 per cent) and parents juggling the demands of work means many are leaving their children to their own devices, in every sense.
One mother of sons aged 13 and 16 says, “For all of their childhood, I’ve forbidden them to have screens in their bedroom. Now suddenly, they both have screens in their bedroom because homeschooling requires it.
“My 16 year-old doesn’t get up until after lunch and my youngest crams what little school work he’s given into the morning, then both start gaming online with their friends from the afternoon. At first I let it go, as it was their only bit of social life left, but now it’s spiralled. Even on sunny days I can’t get them outside, it’s a constant and exhausting battle.”
Gaming is an obvious time-filler, a way of socialising when there are restrictions on meeting in real life, and for some boys it’s like a nervous tic. Some parents talk about how their boys have become nocturnal – gaming with their mates all night, sleeping in during the day. It’s affecting their sleeping patterns and moods – one mother even reports of her son getting up at 4.40am to play.
Consultant clinical psychologist Dr Elizabeth Kilbey, who works with children and adolescents, stresses that personality type may be more relevant to behaviour than gender. But, she says, “My experience has been that boys are really missing out on having that time with other boys. The way boys relate is a bit more physical, there’s a bit more banter, a bit more loafing around in a large group. Girls tend to do a lot more one on one chat. They might ring each other up or FaceTime – but they tend to connect more individually, they have closer, more personal relationships. Boys can relate more in a group.”
It’s the physicality of real life friendship and competition that they’re lacking, she adds. “They hang out, they do sports. I remember walking down the corridor at the school I work at, and watching the boys banging into each other, chest-bumping, putting each other in a headlock, and knuckle-rubbing – and they’re not getting any of that now. None of that groupish behaviour is able to happen at the moment, that’s a great loss to them.”
Compounding this, my 13-year old is also eating from boredom. Me: “Don’t eat that banana just because you’re bored!” Him: “If I was eating from boredom, I wouldn’t eat a banana!” A teacher friend who works at a junior school says he’s shocked at how many boys have gained weight and even lost coordination in the months since he last saw them.
Of course it’s unfair to generalise – just as some girls have found it tough, some boys have thrived in lockdown. Some boys are driven, some girls are apathetic. My 15-year old son has completed every piece of set school work to a high standard, trained almost daily, eaten healthily, and drawn beautiful portraits to relax. Yet from speaking to friends, a definite pattern emerges – daughters tend to be more proactive than their sons, even if this is conditioning rather than innate.
Dr Kilbey says, “I’m always surprised when I ask the boys I’m working with ‘have you met up with friends?’ and they haven’t. I think their socialisation is very much supported by structure – their friendship groups are the boys they travel to school with, the boys they do sport with, the boys in school. Their social relationships are more incidental. They very much respond to the environment whereas girls might be more assertive about reaching out to initiate their own social interactions.”
What motivates your child is also key, she adds. “Someone who is intrinsically motivated is motivated by activities for their own sake and can be self-directed, and would go for a run by themselves or follow an online course, for example.” Some individuals, however, are motivated by external reinforcers – “praise, group status, hierarchy, reward structures, medals, goals.” They do much better in a social arena, with their peer group, than on their own. “We might say boys have a tendency to be more externally motivated,” adds Dr Kilbey.
Time will tell how far-reaching the negative impact on British children’s waistlines and mental health will be, but for many boys still kicking about at home, the end of lockdown can’t come soon enough. Yet as restrictions ease, many are locked into bad habits. “They’re probably speaking to their friends a lot online, doing a lot of gaming, it might be difficult to crowbar them out of the house,” says Dr Kilbey.
Parents can help, she adds. Now they’re allowed to, “it’s important to provide some scaffolding to encourage them to go out, meet in small groups, and do activities together. Help them know the rules, provide them with structure. ‘Would you like to meet up with three friends? Would you go here?’ Give them options. If they’re younger, reach out to other parents to help them reinitiate those social relationships.”
Additional reporting by Helena Pozniak