460297347Turns out small screens in the bedroom may be worse for sleep than a TV. Little screens enter the room without much effort, stealing away in a pocket or backpack without notice; smartphones also grab our attention in novel ways. The light emanating from small screens is really close to our face (potentially interfering with that lovely melatonin spike before bed in ways a TV across the room cannot) and small screens are often interactive, requiring us respond or type back, provoking alertness. The first study evaluating effects of smartphones and tablets on sleep in US children is out. While the news isn’t surprising it isn’t good either.

We may be raising a really tired generation of children.

I’ve been chatting for years about trying to keep TVs out of childrens’ bedrooms. Simply put, television adds little to a child’s life when viewed right before bed. In fact ,Seattle Children’s experts Dr Michelle Garrison and Dr Dimitri Christakis have shown consuming television just before bed can cause children to have more trouble falling asleep, more nightmares, and more awakenings during the night [here’s more info–> why no TV before bed is better]. Recently though, we learned what we all likely suspected: interactive, small screens may be even worse for a child’s sleep than the TV. Tablets, TVs, iPads, and smartphones are for most adults and kids a normal part of everyday life, even during infancy and toddlerhood. 2013 Common Sense Media data finds 45% of 5 to 8 year-olds have a TV in their bedroom and 72% of children from birth to 8 report using mobile devices during the day.

A study out this past week in Pediatrics shows small screens in the bedroom have a troubling effect on children’s sleep.

Why Is Sleep So Important?

  • Sleep helps create focus and sustains our ability to concentrate
    • Weekend “catch-up” sleep isn’t the same as a good night’s rest. Although you can refill the tank by sleeping in on Saturday, weekday sleep affects school or work the next day. How and when you go to bed on a Monday matters.
  • Lack of sleep in children can lead to increased aggression or behavioral problems or even shifts in mood (obviously).
    • A 2013 Pediatrics study found that 7 year-olds with non-regular bedtimes had more behavioral difficulties. Keeping things the same one day to the next is highly valuable to a child’s life and health. Hence why I’ve called consistency “the secret sauce” in parenthood.
  • Poor sleep can lead to long-term health problems like challenges with an unhealthy weight.
    • A 2007 Child Development study found children age 3-12 years of age who slept less had higher BMI’s 5 years later. There may be a chicken and an egg phenomenon here (disordered sleep can sometimes arise as a result of unhealthy weight) but the value of sleep cannot be overstated on health.

Pediatrics Study Founds Small Screens Worse Than TV

  • Over 2,000 4th and 7th graders self-reported amounts of sleep they had, their time of bedtime and use of small screens and TV in their bedroom.
  • Children and teens reported 20.6 fewer minutes of sleep (per weekday) when sleeping near small screen compared to children and teens without them.
    • They had 18 fewer minutes of sleep when sleeping in a room with TV as well.
  • The children and teens reported going to bed at a later time when technology was in the room.
    • 37 minutes later (on average) when small screen is in the room.
    • 31 minutes later when television is in the room.

What Parents Need To Know

  • Make sleep a priority (for everyone in the family). We have to learn how to live with devices in a mandated way since we are all susceptible to their alluring pull.
    • Agree on a reasonable bedtime for your child (8pm) or teen (10pm) and potentially yourself. Be fierce about prioritizing and protecting it. Experiment with this to feel the value–try an awesome bedtime for 2 weeks without fail and see how you all feel. It can be remarkable…
    • Turn phones off at 9pm or consider setting the “do not disturb” function on your phone to reject text messages and calls, buzzes or alerts between 10pm and 6am. I just discovered this! Even if I fail myself and let the phone into the bedroom it won’t interrupt my or my husband’s sleep.
  • Work to get tired in the “right” ways. Instead of using a show or movie (or texting or email) to calm down before bedtime work to
    • Encourage physical activity during the day — activity and exercise will help with falling asleep, even for children with those brains that spin and cycle and have a hard time turning off.
    • No caffeine after 12 pm during the day.
    • No big or little screens in the bedroom! In an ideal world, cut out screens 1-2 hours before bedtime to avoid effects of light on the sleep hormone (melatonin) spikes. Keep those smartphones with their text reminders and alarms and interactive apps out of bed as a family. Consider having a place in the kitchen where all (including adult) devices sleep.