Is Technology Affecting the Way Children Sleep?

Technology is helping our children to dream bigger during the day, but is it hindering their sleep at night?

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by Joshua Charpentier

Some research suggests, that kids who accessed social media devices regularly before bedtime reported sleeping nearly an hour less on school nights than those students who rarely connected online. When children don’t get enough sleep they can become cranky, moody, and can run the risk of developing a host of physical and behavioural problems. With more and more children becoming “connected” at younger and younger ages, sleep specialists are starting to see links between screen time – the use of computers, cellphones, T.V., and social media devices – and poor sleep hygiene.

Researchers from the University of Sydney determined that there is a dose-response relationship between the use of electronic devices in bed prior to sleep and sleep patterns in children. Children who overused media devices (computer, cellphones, and T.V.) experienced delayed sleep onset, decreased sleep duration, increased sleep disturbances, and difficulties achieving and maintaining sleep.

How does screen time impact sleep?

Dr. Daniel Willingham, professor of cognitive psychology at the University of Virginia, says that screen time can hamper sleep in four main ways:

  • Biological changes in adolescence – The hormones melatonin, which makes you sleepy, and cortisol, which is responsible for wakefulness are internal biological cues that establish the sleep/wake cycle. These hormone levels can change in a child as they go through adolescence. That means that the internal signals about when one should be sleepy and when one should be awake are weaker in teens than young children. This weakness in melatonin and cortisol signals means that teenagers are more susceptible to external cues such as light and sound that is keeping them awake.
  • Time of use – Frequent technology use near bedtime is associated with significant adverse effects on multiple sleep parameters. The use of electronic media can lead to delays in a child’s bedtime, decreased sleep duration, difficulty falling asleep, and daytime sleepiness.
  • Content – Engaging the brain in active or provocative events through video gaming, movie or television watching, or communicating through social media can make it more difficult for children to go to sleep. Also, evening T.V. viewing in children is associated with delayed sleep onset and daytime drowsiness.
  • Light emissions – Light from electronic devices (LED displays) may confuse the natural circadian rhythmic cycles in the body. These cycles regulate the body’s ability to fall asleep and wake up. Exposure to external (blue-wavelength) light increases alertness and suppresses the release of the hormone melatonin, which is a key factor in regulating sleep.

How can parents help children sleep?

Parents need to be aware of how and when a child is accessing an electronic device or social media. Changes can be made and could have far reaching physical, psychological, and behavioural benefits for the child.

  • Remove the screens – Arianna Huffington, author of the best-selling book, “The Sleep Revolution: Transforming Your Life, One Night at a Time”, is calling all of us, young and old, to bed. She recommends that our sleeping environments should be void of electronic devices and distractions. A sanctuary where sleep is treated with respect and ritualistically. It is through this habitual process that people can establish strong routines and practice healthy sleep hygiene.
  • Stick to a consistent routine – Letting your child stay up late on weekends is a tempting proposition. Children learn how enjoyable it is to stay up later and gives them the desire to stay up late on other nights. Establish a strong routine that requires your child to go to bed at the same time every night of the week. Maintaining a consistent wake time is also as important as an established bedtime when “sleep training” your child.
  • Remove distractions – Removing access to technology at least one hour before bed is a good rule of thumb for establishing healthy sleep hygiene practices. Performing other low-cognitive activities like playing cards, reading, writing or drawing on paper can aid with the onset of sleep. This rule should apply to all members of the family, regardless of age, to help all in the family get a good night’s sleep.

What are teachers supposed to do?

For the past several years, a pilot program in three Montreal elementary schools, led by Dr. Gruber from McGill University, developed a school-based sleep promotion program geared towards students. Results of this study were published in the May (2016) edition of the journal, “Sleep Medicine”. The intervention involved a six-week sleep curriculum program for children, to teach them about healthy sleep habits. Materials were provided to parents, teachers, and school administrators, who were then asked to consider the demands that are put on students through school schedules, extracurricular activities and homework, and what the impacts could be on sleep.

The children who were placed in the intervention group extended their sleep by an average of 18.2 minutes per night, and sleep onset decreased by an average of 2.3 minutes. These results may seem modest, but there was a marked improvement in English and Math scores amongst the intervention students in comparison to the control group who’s sleep duration did not change, and their grades did not improve.

Something to consider

For most school-aged children, this appears to be an issue of habits and routine, technology exposure and limit-setting. We adults know that we do not get as much sleep as we should, or that we do not practice healthy sleep hygiene routines. Have we removed the screens from our bedrooms? Have we created a regular routine or avoid technology before going to bed? Sleeping habits and routines should be a family priority, and is a good way to get everyone focused on what matters: waking up rested and ready to tackle the day, in mind and body.

Are there habits and routines that you use to establish and maintain healthy sleep practices in your house? What are your feelings and opinions about technology use before bed? Provide some feedback in the section below.

6 thoughts on “Is Technology Affecting the Way Children Sleep?”

  1. Thanks for the interesting read Josh! Particularly interested in the sleep promotion program which produced increased scores in English and Mathematics. I believe that technology use should be restricted at home. It is obvious that the use of technology before bed is not beneficial. This time provides a great opportunity for parents and children to communicate beyond the screen, to read books, to ask questions about the day and to build vital social skills.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks, Brandon. I thought it really interesting that with such a small increase in sleep duration could have positive results in academic performance. I like the idea of bringing in sleep hygiene curriculum into the classroom. I have so many students who come into the classroom with bags under their eyes and exhausted. It would be really interesting to see if performance would improve in my classroom if these types of teachings were promoted in education.

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      1. In terms of sleeping I wonder about the difference regular reading (actual books) has on quality of sleep. Anecdotally, reading before bed is an age-old method to use for people who struggle to fall asleep. Is this even true? Even if people fall asleep faster because of this method does that mean they are more likely to spend more time in R.E.M. sleep? I have personally started using Mindfulness Meditation as a method to relieve stress and improve my sleep. Check out this article connecting mediation with improved sleep:

        http://www.health.harvard.edu/blog/mindfulness-meditation-helps-fight-insomnia-improves-sleep-201502187726

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  2. Josh, I really enjoyed your post! As you can probably imagine, sleep is not in my wheelhouse.
    I think this post does not just relate to the children, but all of us adults suffering from sleep deprivation too. It was important for you to mention that this should be a family routine as all of us need a quality night sleep.
    When I was reading up on anxiety and technology there was also much mention about sleep deprivation and how the anxious feelings about social media use can impact our sleep, our appetite, our mental health overall. Interesting how it is so interrelated!
    My bedroom is a technology free zone. No cell phones, no TV’s, no laptops. It is a rule we have had in our house for a while now. Technology is a distraction during our waking hours. It should not be one while we are sleeping too!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. It is so true. I really feel that we have lost something with the introduction of technology. We need to get back to our “roots”. More quality family time, more family-based routines, and time away from the distractions that technology can bring into our homes. Technology definitely has its benefits, but it is also nice not to have it.

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      1. Josh, I really enjoyed your post! As you might imagine, taking a long distance master’s program, I am one of those people who has sleep deprivation. It was also interesting to hear that sleep deprivation could lead to diabetes ’cause I have been having problems with my insulin levels. It is amazing how everything leads to one another… Having daughters away from home, they always call in the middle of the night so I had my phone in the room. I will try for alternative methods now. One way of trying to fall asleep for younger kids is through music. I used that on my kids when they were little and it worked. Once again it was a cassette player (some form of technology) nevertheless better than the technology we have nowadays. Thanks for the tips in your post…

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