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The Hard Truth about Screen Time and Sleep for Kids

January 10, 2019 • Kids Health LLC • Sleep
Girl and boy with their smart phones

The number of sleep children and adolescents gets each night is continuing to decrease, and researchers believe screen time may be to blame.

Sleep is incredibly important for cognitive and physical processes alike, especially for children and teens. However, research shows that school-aged children and adolescents are continuing to get fewer and fewer hours of sleep over time, even though sleep deficits negatively impact mood, learning outcomes, and overall health.

While there are likely a number of factors contributing to young people’s growing sleep deficits, studies suggest that screens have a significant effect. Screen time can reduce both the quantity and quality of sleep, which can lead to negative health consequences. Fortunately, there are steps parents can take to curb screen time and help their children sleep more soundly.

Why Screen Time Hurts Kids’ Sleep

First and foremost, screens intrude on sleep simply because they’re so stimulating. A 2014 review found evidence that screens consistently intrude on sleep duration and cause delays in sleep timing. Most children have at least one screen in their bedrooms, and that easy access makes it difficult for them to put the screens away before bed and get a full night’s sleep. If the content children consume is exciting, dramatic, or scary, that can contribute to sleep loss as well.

Furthermore, the bright “blue light” that screens emit can interfere with the body’s circadian rhythm. Light emissions in the evening can confuse the body, increasing alertness and suppressing the release of the sleep hormone melatonin. This makes it harder to both fall and stay asleep.

During the day, time spent with screens can also directly replace time that children would spend doing other activities, like playing sports or spending time outdoors with friends. These types of activities are beneficial for sleep and sleep regulation, as they help ensure that kids are appropriately tired out at bedtime. If sedentary screen time is replacing exercise, kids may still be wide awake late at night.

Strategies to Curb Screen Time

Lack of sleep doesn’t just make children more tired the next day — it also makes them less productive, more likely to become depressed, and less motivated in school. Another recent study suggests that children who stay up late using screens tend to have higher body mass indexes on average.

For all of these reasons, it’s recommended that parents have strategies in place to curb children’s screen time and get them to bed at a reasonable hour. Education is a great place to start: many kids see sleep as an inconvenient eight hours when they can’t play computer games or watch Netflix, but parents can teach them the importance of a good night’s sleep simply by explaining the consequences of lack of sleep.

Because education alone isn’t likely to completely curb the temptation of screens, it’s good to have some rules in place around screen use at bedtime. We recommend:

  • •Keeping phones, TVs, and game systems out of children’s bedrooms.

  • •Stopping screens an hour before bed to ensure that kids have time to wind down.

  • •Having an established bedtime routine that doesn’t involve screen time.

  • •Ensuring that kids are getting enough physical activity during the day to be tired in the evening.

Screens are one of parents’ greatest adversaries in the battle to get kids to bed on time, but smart strategies and clear communication with your children can both help. If your kids continue to struggle with lack of sleep, talk to your pediatrician about further steps you can take.