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Simple Solutions to Stop Screens Sabotaging Sleep

Sleep is vital for kids’ and teens’ optimal health, wellbeing, learning and development. They need both good quality sleep and an adequate amount of sleep. Yet research tells us that many kids and teens aren’t getting a sufficient amount of sleep and/or good quality of sleep. And of the chief reasons why (but certainly not the only reason) is because of their technology habits.

Why kids and teens need sleep?

Sleep promotes kids’ and teens’:

// physical health– poor sleep is associated with lower immunity, increased weight and obesity rates, poorer reaction times and increased clumsiness;

// mental and emotional wellbeing– poor sleep is associated with mental health issues such as depression and anxiety and overall mood;

// learning– poor sleep impacts kids’ capacity to learn, concentration and memory formation. Memory consolidation occurs in the latter two stages of sleep. Yet many kids aren’t getting to these final stages of sleep because of digital interruptions. Sleep is vital before and after learning. Studies have shown that even 30 minutes of missed sleep can result in an IQ difference of ten points.1

How digital devices can compromise sleep

Digital devices can have a negative impact on kids’ and teens’ circadian rhythms, thereby directly impacting the volume and quality of sleep they accumulate each night. However, it’s important to note that screens aren’t the sole causal factor of poor sleep in kids and teens. The demands of homework and assignments, study pressure, extra-curricular activities, work demands and mental health issues such as anxiety are some other factors that are also contributing to waning sleep habits in kids and adolescents.

Here are some of the ways digital devices compromise sleep:

// Blue light impact– The blue light emitted from screens (especially small hand-held devices such as smartphones, tablets and gaming consoles) impact children’s and teen’s circadian rhythms. The blue light prevents the pineal gland from producing melatonin the sleep hormone the brain needs to secrete to make kids/teens sleepy. Inadequate production of melatonin prevents kids/teens from feeling tired and can delay the onset of sleep. Sleep delays accumulate over time and can result in a sleep deficit. This is a particular concern for children approaching puberty as their circadian rhythms biologically change- they naturally want to fall asleep later. However, this later sleep time can be exacerbated by blue light devices.

// Arousal effect– rapid-fire, fast-paced screen action can hyper-arouse the brain making delaying the onset of sleep. Playing video games, watching fast-paced TV programs, or engaging in group messages, or viewing social media can all arouse the brain and delay the onset of sleep. These sleep delays can accumulate into a sleep deficit over time.

// Scary or upsetting content– can psychologically distress our kids and teens, especially if they’re consuming it just before they fall asleep. Viewing distressing content can cause nightmares, particularly amongst younger children under 10 years of age (they’re susceptible to experiencing intense fear as a result of viewing disturbing footage or images because they’re psychologically unable to distinguish fiction from reality until between 8-10 years, typically). Whilst many parents (wisely) restrict their kids’ exposure to violent movies and/or video games, sometimes we overlook the scary or disturbing images or video that are featured on TV news programs and distributed via social media. Movie trailers and promotions are another source of content than can be distressing for kids to consume.

// Premature waking – many parents are reporting that their children are waking at earlier and earlier times to get their daily ‘dose of digital’ (often before their parents wake up). In parent seminars I share a story of a 3-year-old girl who was waking up each day before her parents and using the iPad. After changing the 6-digit password they were shocked to find their daughter on the iPad when they meandered downstairs each morning. How did she do it? She’d sneak into her parents’ bedroom and use her dad’s thumbprint (he’d sleep with his arms hanging out of the bed) to unlock the device. Scary or genius, I’ll let you decide?

// Interrupted sleep cycles– the presence of digital devices in bedrooms can interfere with completed sleep cycles. Each night kids/teens should go through five stages of sleep and repeat that cycle 4-6 times each night. If they have a device in their bedroom the alerts and notifications can interrupt the sleep cycles. Even if the device is switched off or on airplane mode, just seeing the device can be a mental trigger for the child/tee (e.g. ‘I wonder how many likes my Instagram pots got?’ Or ‘I wonder how many Fortnite battles I missed last night?’).

Simple & realistic solutions

// Keep devices OUT of bedrooms– the presence of digital devices in bedrooms can increase the likelihood of sleep delays and children and teens using devices (unsupervised) throughout the night. I had parents tell me that they were horrified to discover their 8 year old son was ‘borrowing’ a neighbour’s WiFi network at 1am in the morning to access pornography.

// Establish a digital bedtime– ideally screens should be switched off 60-90 minutes before kids/teens fall asleep. This helps to calm the brain and prevent the adverse impact of blue light.

// Do a tech-swap before bed– for some families screens are part of the evening routine. So instead of using a smartphone or tablet (which are interactive and emit blue light) before bed allow children to watch TV (they don’t typically emit as much blue light and hopefully your kids don’t sit as close to TVs as they do handheld devices), listen to an audiobook, podcast or meditation app (I highly recommend the Calm app).

// Use tech tools– use Night Shift mode on iOS devices, or Blue Light Filter or Twilight on Android devices and f.lux on laptops and desktop computers. Another simple trick is to simply dim the brightness on screens.

// Use blue-light blocking glasses– I personally use and recommend Baxter Blue Glasses. (If you use the promo code ‘drkristy’ you’ll receive free express shipping on your order.)

// Establish a landing zone– nominate a specific place in your home where all digital devices go at night. It may be the kitchen counter, the sideboard, a laundry bench. This way, you can do a quick digital headcount before bed. But beware, many kids and teens now own a decoy phone, so be curious if your teen hands over their phone without much protest.

// Preserve green time– kids need time in natural sunlight each day to help regulate their circadian rhythms (and ward off myopia, near-sightedness). Ideally, kids should be exposed to natural sunlight between 8am-12pm each day.

Do you want more simple solutions to promote healthy sleep with your kids? Do you want to know more about how screens are impacting your child or teen’s sleep? Grab a copy of my ‘Stop Screens Sabotaging Sleep’ mini-masterclass where I explore why kids and teens need sleep, how much sleep they need at different ages, how screens can compromise their sleep and most importantly, arm you with practical solutions to promote healthy sleep habits in a digital world.

1Nixon, G. M., Thompson, J. M., Han, D. Y., Becroft, D. M., Clark, P. M., Robinson, E., … & Mitchell, E. A. (2008). Short sleep duration in middle childhood: risk factors and consequences. Sleep, 31(1), 71-78.

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I’m Dr. Kristy Goodwin

Researcher, speaker, author, and mum - and not only do I GET it, I’ve dedicated my entire career to helping my fellow professionals and parents explore this exact digital dilemma.

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