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Sleep in a Digital Age

In a previous post about the essential building blocks for learning, we discussed why sleep is vital for a child’s brain development. Neuroscience is confirming what many parents have known for years: sleep is essential. It is not a luxury, but is instead a basic need. However, in today’s digitally-saturated world, many parents and teachers wonder if today’s children are getting enough sleep? As adults, we tend to wear sleep-deprivation like a badge of honour, but we now know how critical sleep is for cognitive function and this is even more so for children.

Is our digital landscape changing children’s sleeping habits?

The simple answer is ‘yes’. We have many new devices and screens that tempt young children. In the past, we ‘simply’ had to lure children away from TV. However, we now have a range of devices like video game consoles and tablets that appeal to young children (and adults) and often delay sleep time.

A recent study showed that screen time in the 90 minutes before children’s bedtime can cause sleep delays. Overtime this cumulated sleep loss can cause an overall sleep deficit. Rapid-fire TV or video games may over-stimulate young children and activate areas of the brain that require more passive activities before the onset of sleep.

Another recent study published in the journal Pediatrics found that violent or age-inappropriate programming could increase the odds that children have problems falling asleep and staying asleep or have nightmares.


Despite guidelines that discourage TVs in bedrooms there is evidence to suggest that these recommendations are often disregarded. In Australia we know that 30% of 5-year old children have a TV in their bedroom. We also know that young children have increasing access to mobile technologies like gaming consoles and tablet devices and that these are often easily transported into bedrooms. It is then difficult for parents to monitor how much media young children consume and place limits on what they can access.

What about book apps before bed?

Parents may be left wondering about whether e-books and book apps should be avoided before bedtime, if they are trying to limit screen-time before bed. I recommend that parents make careful choices about the types of book apps that they use before bedtime. There is no need to completely ban them. Avoid book apps that contain too many ‘bells and whistles’ like animations and sound effects. Try to use basic book apps with minimal distracting elements and limited interactive features (like matching games or puzzles within the book).

 Suggestions for parents:

*Where possible avoid screens in the hour before bed. However, if your children are watching TV before nodding off, make sure they’re tuning into an age-appropriate show. Checking out media organisations such as Common Sense Media can assist parents figure out what kinds of programming they should avoid;

*Limit rapid-fire (fast-paced, action) screen use in the hour before bed-time;

*Monitor the content of screens before bed. Avoid violent or age-inappropriate programs (even news programs contain graphic and violent content);

*Establish and maintain bedtime rituals (as opposed to rigid routines);

*Keep bedrooms as ‘screen-free’ zones: TVs, computers, touch devices and gaming consoles should not be placed in children’s bedrooms;

*Talk to your child about why sleep is so important for their brain;

*Model effective sleep habits yourself. Do not wear lack of sleep like a badge of honour. Sleep is a basic need and we need children to understand this. Sleep must be a priority.

 Do you have tips or ideas for managing your child’s sleep in a digital age? Are you a concerned parent or teacher who worries about how screen time is encroaching on sleep? I’d love to see your comments below.


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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