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Screen Time and Children's Sleep: What Parents Can Do

Last Updated on May 10, 2021

“Sleep is our competition” (CEO of Netflix).

Sleep is essential to children’s health and development. Electronic devices – especially smartphones in their bedrooms – rob kids of their sleep.

And the outcome is not good.

A friend shared a story about her son who was constantly tired, and could not keep up with his schoolwork. The parents were seriously concerned and planned to take him in for a medical evaluation, when they discovered the truth: the boy was secretly setting his alarm for the middle of the night to sneak downstairs and play video games while the family were sleeping. The laptop was removed, and his health recovered overnight.

Our middle school counselors speak of girls who spend the entire night on social media – and stagger into their office the next morning complaining they cannot possibly function at school today.

Let’s face it – screens and sleep are incompatible.

How Devices Disrupt Sleep

Wake Up, Kid!

They beep. They vibrate. They flash. Teens wake up all night long to check what the latest notification is all about. By design, notifications hijack human psychology: they are impossible to ignore. Your social media slave masters inform you at 3am that your picture got a new “Like”! You don’t have to look, but…are you curious who is INTERESTED IN YOU?

Wake up, kid!

Turn them off! Open the phone settings together with your child and turn off all notifications from algorithms, only keeping those from actual people. Then set up ‘do not disturb” hours to make sure the phone stays silent when they are asleep:

Do not disturb screenshot

Taking these simple precautions does not mean it’s ok to leave the phone in your kid’s bedroom at night – even if it stays silent, they will not be able to resist it. It’s not your kid’s fault: the phone itself is designed to be addictive.

Addiction

Social media and video games are an intentionally engineered addiction. The optimal outcome for their creators is maximizing user time on their app at the cost of all other activities – such as sleep. That’s the essence of attention economy:

Maximum Profitability = User Engagement 24 Hours a Day * 7 Days a Week

Every minute of our kids’ sleep is taking dollars out of their pocket.

The industry doesn’t like it, and spends billions to make sure sleep loses the competition. The arsenal of persuasive design techniques to keep users glued to their screens works best on the subconscious of the young. They are powerless to resist the mind control – as long as that phone is in their hands, user engagement is guaranteed.

Adolescent brain is immature. The gas pedal of emotions is pressed to the floor, but the breaks of rationality are still under construction. Self-control software has no hard drive in the head of a teenager – their prefrontal cortex is not fully grown until the age of 25.

It makes our kids as easy for the tech industry to manipulate as lab rats.

Press the button on the screen => get a reward!

Late at night, teens cannot resist their natural impulse for immediate rewards (feeling good NOW!) for the remote benefits of sleep (feeling better TOMORROW). The screen in their hands is a dopamine dispenser, and they can’t let go of it.

Blue Light

Blue light from the screens suppresses melatonin – a natural sleep hormone produced in the body. For the brain blue light is daylight: a signal to stay awake. Blue light blocking glasses might help, but the best policy is to remove the screens themselves.

For teenagers, the release of melatonin is already delayed compared to adults: their body clock signal for sleep is not 10pm – it’s more like midnight.  Due to this shift in circadian rhythms most experts agree it’s ok to sometimes give teens supplemental melatonin. We allow our 14-year old to take one low-dose melatonin when he feels he needs help falling asleep. He makes the call himself.

Physical Arousal

High arousal state is the design goal of video games, which are tested before release to ensure they produce high blood pressure, rapid heartbeat, and sweaty palms in the gamer. And it’s not just games. Any platform, be it social media or online news, succeeds in capturing and holding user attention by keeping them in a constant fight-or-flight state, their blood full of adrenaline and cortisol.

Good luck falling asleep.

Mental Alertness

Screen activities keep the brain on high alert. Overloaded with late-night social media drama, kids’ brains are forced to keep on processing the information and simply would not turn off.

If the exchange was toxic, rumination sets in: negative thoughts running on the loop in the head, wrecking not just sleep but mental health as well.

What Happens When Kids Don't Sleep

  • Physical fatigue, trouble waking up, falling asleep during the day
  • Poor academic performance, trouble concentrating, reduced creativity and memory
  • Compromised emotional regulation, irritability, mood swings
  • Stress, anxiety, and panic attacks
  • Depression
  • Aggressive behavior
  • Worse symptoms of ADHD or bipolar disorder
  • Weakened immune system
  • Obesity
  • Substance abuse
  • Risky behavior
  • Driving accidents
  • Increased risk of suicide
  • Burnout: overall emotional, physical, and mental exhaustion.

What Parents Can Do

Digital Curfew

Devices go to bed before kids do. Digital curfew ends ALL screen time at a particular hour agreed upon as a family, to help kids wind down. American Academy of Pediatrics suggests that all screens should be turned off at least 30 minutes before bedtime

Discuss media rules with your children in advance, explain why sleep is important, and get their buy-in: in my experience, once children accept a digital curfew, they stop questioning it. My kids still struggle a little every night at 8.30pm when it’s time to surrender the devices (“I am in the middle of a level!”), but comply with the rule.

Kids can read quietly before bed – preferably not on the screen. Kindle Paperwhite is one possible exception: it reduces blue light to a minimum, but more importantly, it’s only for reading, not for sleep-destroying online distractions. Reading kindles is the only unregulated screen time in our home.

No Tech in the Bedroom

What about relying on parental controls to turn off WiFi at bedtime? Parental controls can be hacked. Information about the many ways kids bypass parental controls gets a lot of traffic – unfortunately, not from parents. Which leads to the most important principle: No Tech in the Bedroom.

At night all devices have to be physically removed.

No Device = No Temptation.

Since kids’ are unable to resist the power of addictive technology alone, we should make a choice of “sleeping vs screening” the only choice. Healthy sleep is a natural outcome.

Remove the phone from the bedroom at night and charge it in a different location: kitchen or family room. Charging devices outside the bedroom is the universal recommendation from every health authority:

American Academy of Pediatrics

Mayo Clinic

Common Sense Media

National Institutes of Health

American Psychological Association

Center for Humane Technology

Children and Screens: Institute of Digital Media and Child Development

Bedroom as a tech-free zone means ALL devices. If you took the phone away but left the laptop behind, you have not solved the problem. Kids can proceed to log in into their digital drug of choice on a different screen. Scour your digital landscape at home and evaluate potential sleep disruptors: some are obvious (like TVs), some are very new – like Alexa and other smart home gadgets. My strong opinion is that none of these belong in kids’ bedrooms. Sleep disruption and privacy concerns are sufficient to exercise extreme caution with everything in a child’s bedroom that can be connected to the Internet.

Lead by Example

“Do as I say, not as I do” is hypocrisy, which gives kids moral permission to violate family media rules. Parents need to model healthy digital boundaries they want their kids to have.

Keeping your phone in a central charging location at night alongside your kid’s phone is not that hard. It’s also one of the most common advice from lifestyle experts: keep the phones out of your bedroom!

Do it for your child – but also for yourself. A better night’s sleep and a peaceful morning will do wonders for your health and productivity. An old-fashioned alarm clock is a great piece of technology, it’s cheap, works forever on AAA batteries, and does one thing only – wakes you up! 

  • It does not disrupt your sleep with notifications. 
  • It doesn’t overload you with stress of the latest news before you are even vertical.
  • It doesn’t demand that you get lost in your social media or answer work emails the moment you opened your eyes.

Avoiding digitally-induced sleep deprivation and anxiety is the free lifestyle upgrade. And it’s cheaper than therapy.

Good for us – and an excellent example for our children.

Explore existing screen time management solutions here:

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