The Interchange editor and mum of two, Suzie, shares her experience of screen time and sleep patterns…
I’m guilty as many of us are of giving my son and daughter an iPad when I just need 10 minutes to get something done. Couldn’t do any harm, right? And I’d manage to put that washing on, or make an important call, or whatever else that those precious few moments gave me!
I knew too much screen time was supposedly a bad thing, although until about nine months ago I couldn’t tell you exactly why. So, my kids were limited to the amount of time they spent watching things on YouTube or their favourite shows on Netflix.
Just before bedtime to give them some ‘downtime’ I’d let them both have 15 – 20 minutes winding down led in bed watching the iPad. It never occurred to me that the root cause of my son’s severe sleeping problems was this 15 – 20 minutes.
We all know that sleep is important for health; even as adults we know how sluggish we feel after a poor night’s sleep. But for children and teens, it’s vital for both their physical and mental health yet research is showing they are getting less sleep now than they used to. At the same time, the number of children who have devices in their bedrooms or who look at screens before bedtime has increased; which means it wasn’t long before scientists started to explore the link between screen time and poor sleep.
It turns out there are many complex ways our precious devices are affecting children’s sleep.
My four-year-old boy would happily hand over the iPad, have a kiss and a cuddle and go to sleep. I’d check on him half an hour later and he’d be sound. But come midnight the screaming and wailing would start. He’d demand to come in my bed, he’d wake the whole house up with tantrums and head fits, thrashing around on the floor. It would go on for hours and I tried EVERYTHING. Every recommendation about bedtime routines I could think of, I’d tried. I had no choice but to see my doctor and have my son referred to a sleep specialist.
Now, at its most basic, playing on a phone or iPad can mean your child goes to sleep later than they should. Young children need 10 to 13 hours sleep a night and those aged 6-13 years need 9-11 hours sleep (sleepfoundation.org) so even half an hour lost to the iPad each night will build up quite a substantial deficit by the end of the week.
It’s not just at bedtime that devices can interrupt sleep. Sitting looking at a screen or playing video games can mean less time exercising or playing outside; both of which have been shown to be beneficial to a good night’s sleep.
Recent research has found that the blue light emitted by screens works a bit like morning sunshine and actually stops the production of our sleep hormone melatonin. This means children who look at screens at bedtime won’t feel like going to sleep even if they are tired. Dave Gibson, osteopath and sleep expert (www.thesleepsite.co.uk) recommends banning all screens at least an hour before bedtime as part of a fixed bedtime routine.
It was this blue light that was giving the whole family nightmares – literally. Before I went to see the specialist, I stopped giving him the iPad before bed. For a couple of nights there were tears, but literally within days my son began sleeping through the night. It was like a miracle cure. I then felt awful that I’d inadvertently been the cause of his sleep problems.
I’m not saying this is the same for all children. My daughter continues to watch her iPad before bed and appears to suffer no ill effects. Although, now it’s an occasional treat and not an every night occurrence.
But your child is suffering from sleep problems and is spending time on a tablet or phone, it’s seriously worth considering that it might be time to try something else…