Nowadays, kids spend a huge percentage of their lives in front of a screen. Of course, responsible and necessary use of devices accounts for a large portion of this time. More often than not, classroom activities and homework require a computer of some form or another. And there are plenty of completely safe, enjoyable ways to use a device to play, relax and unwind.
However – no matter what you’re doing on your phone, laptop or tablet – devices inherently pose a risk to one key aspect of life: sleep.
Proper sleeping habits are incredibly important for a child’s development. On average, most adults are built for 16 hours on, eight hours off. We generally need half an hour of sleep for every hour we spend awake. And contrary to popular opinion – the need for sleep doesn’t actually decline with age (Van Dongen & Dinges, Principles & Practice of Sleep Medicine). It can just be easier to slip into poor sleeping habits as we age, or make up for our lost winks with coffee.
The fact of the matter is, getting used to a healthy sleep routine when we are young is not just good for the child’s moods – it’s a pivotal life skill.
And that’s where devices can wreak havoc.
Staring at a screen too close to bedtime can have a serious effect on our sleeping patterns.
Using a device before bed does a few things. For a start, it damages your circadian rhythm. Your ‘body clock’ is a complex equation of hormones, and the short-wavelength, artificial blue light that’s emitted by smartphones, TVs, laptops, tablets and other devices can throw this equation out of order. Blue light, thanks to it’s short waveform, is easily picked up by our retinas, making our brains think it’s daytime. The brain responds by suppressing the release of melatonin – a sleep-inducing hormone – to keep us awake, making hay while the sun shines.
This means, the more screen time in the evening, the harder it is to fall, or stay, asleep.
Suppression of melatonin also plays with your REM sleep. This is when our most vivid dreaming happens. It’s important for everyone – but most important for children. REM sleep stimulates the brain regions we use for learning, which some believe explains why infants spend much more time in an REM state than adults. Using devices reduces the total amount of REM sleep we get in a night, which leaves users sluggish and tired in the morning, and makes it harder to concentrate throughout the day. Over time, this can add up to a significant sleep deficiency.
The fact of the matter is, kids need sleep. A lack of sleep can affect their schooling, mood, appetite and more. A screenless pre-bed routine is a small price to pay for a healthy, happy mind.
The most important thing for all parents and guardians to do to combat these issues is to set healthy and realistic expectations around when it is and isn’t okay to use an electronic device.
As a general rule, an hour without any screen time before bed is the best way to encourage a good night’s sleep.