Digital devices are becoming fixtures in the bedroom. Teens and preteens are trading their sleep for technology time. One study found that 96% of teens use at least one form of technology in the hour before going to bed. Teens who form one of the largest consumer groups of technology tend to leave them on past bedtime, which can be particularly disruptive to sleep.
Screen use in the hour before bed stimulates your child. While there are some research-backed benefits of active screen time to children, the increasing reliance on digital devices, especially at bedtime, has been associated with unintended consequences on human health.
But what do researchers say about this?
Bedtime and electronics are not a good match
The simple truth is that bedtime screen habits directly affect sleep—either by how quickly your child falls asleep or how long your child sleeps.
A new study shows that middle schoolers who spend time on smartphones, laptops, and tablets in the hour before bed are likely to sleep poorly and be more tired the next day.
Researchers looked at the effects of screen time at bedtime among 345 12-14 year olds over a 6 month period. They found that not only did spending time on media devices before going to bed disrupt sleep, but that it had a “bidirectional” effect such that poor sleep led to more bedtime media use.
Adolescents with access to media devices in the bedroom are more likely to engage in bedtime media use, which can have a negative impact on their sleep and health, the study finds. The time spent scrolling or texting takes the place of time that otherwise might have been spent sleeping.
Watching videos or playing games also might overstimulate young brains when they should be winding down, as does the devices’ blue light. During the day, students who reported bedtime media use experienced more sleepiness and struggled to maintain attention.
Sleep plays a critical role at that age. The potential long-term effects of poor sleep are wide ranging, contributing to conditions such as chronic inflammation and obesity, among others. Understanding how modern interactive forms of media can affect adolescent health and behavior is an important area of research.
The more time kids spend on screens, the less they sleep
Teens who spend more than an hour or two on their smartphones each day may not be getting enough sleep at night, new research suggests. The research is the strongest evidence to date that teens’ increased use of electronic devices in recent years is responsible for similar rises in insufficient sleep.
Researchers analyzed data from two national surveys of more than 360,000 teens, focusing specifically on sleep and smartphone use changes from 2009-2015. They noted an abrupt change in teens’ sleep habits around 2012; the same time smartphones became more prevalent.
According to the study, as time spent on smartphones increased, so did the percentage of teens getting insufficient sleep:
- Relative to 2009, 17% more teens in 2015 reported sleeping fewer than 7 hours a night.
- 35% of teens using electronic devices for 1 hour a day slept fewer than 7 hours.
- 52% of teens using electronic devices for 5-plus hours slept fewer than 7 hours.
- By comparison, those spending more than 5 hours were 50% more likely to sleep less than those spending an hour a day.
Kids are waking up to check their smartphones
More than 1 in 5 teenagers say they “almost always” wake up during the night to look at or post messages on social media, according to a new report. More than a third of 12-15 year olds say they do so at least once a week.
In addition to disrupting sleep, this use of social media at night also seems to affect teens’ overall happiness, with lower levels of wellbeing reported by those who wake up to use social networks.
Meanwhile, the paper also presented implications for the debate on whether teenagers should be allowed to start school later, to give them more time to sleep in the morning. The researchers say their data suggest such a change could do more harm than good.
The team’s findings on teenage sleep patterns are drawn from statistical analysis of a survey of 412 12- and 13-year-old students (in year eight) and 436 14- and 15 year old students in secondary schools across Wales.
The adolescents were asked how often they wake at night to use social media. Some 22% of the 12-13 year olds and 23% among those 14-15 answered: “almost always.” A further 14% of the younger group, and 15% of the older, said they did so at least once a week.
Those surveyed were also asked how often they felt tired at school. More than half of those who reported “almost always” waking to use social media also said they “almost always” go to school feeling tired. This was much higher than the overall percentage of respondents saying they “almost always” feel tired at school, which was 32% among the younger pupils and 39% among the older.
The study found substantial proportions of pupils reporting going to bed very late. However, in the case of the younger group, the amount of time spent in bed actually seemed less important in terms of whether the child then reported feeling tired at school than whether they woke up during the night to use social media.
This was not the case among the older group. However, even among this group, those saying they woke up to use social media every night were still twice as likely to say they were constantly tired than those who never did so.
The effects of blue light
Light from tablets or phones in the hour before bed can significantly disrupt sleep time for kids, particularly those between the ages of 9 and 15. A new study finds that the sleep biology of boys and girls in the earlier stages of puberty are especially sensitive to light at night compared to older teens.
In lab experiments, an hour of night-time light exposure suppressed their production of the sleep-timing hormone melatonin significantly more than the same light exposure did for teens aged 11 to 16 who were farther into puberty. The brighter the light in the experiments, the more melatonin was suppressed. The effects were the same for boys and girls.
Why nighttime screen time determines how awake your kid feels the next day
According to researcher Kimberly Horton of Wales Institute of Social and Economic Research Data (WISERD), based at Cardiff University:
Having a regular wake-time and using social media during the night appear to be more important in determining whether a young person is always tired during the day than the time they go to bed, how long they spend in bed and having a regular bedtime.
Therefore, it’s very important to discourage adolescents from using social media during the night. No amount of effort to develop regular bedtimes or lengthen the time in bed would seem to compensate for the disruption that this can cause.
How to reduce or eliminate screen time at bedtime
The National Sleep Foundation and the American Academy of Pediatrics recommend eliminating screen time in the hour before going to bed. As for steps parents and guardians can take to encourage this, it helps to establish ground rules for logging on or using a phone and keeping media devices outside of bedrooms.
Restricting media access tends to work better with younger than older adolescents. In those younger years, you have a better chance as a parent to put down some ground rules and consistently enforce them. You have an opportunity to build good habits and establish healthy sleep hygiene early on that the kids will carry forward with them.
As parents, we can also model healthy behaviors when it comes to using our smartphones, laptops, or sleep hygiene. If you’re going to be on your phone in the bedroom, it’s hard to convince children that they shouldn’t do that.
Here are the recommendations for parents and clinicians:
- Make sleep a priority by talking with family members about the importance of sleep and healthy sleep expectations.
- Encourage a bedtime routine that includes calming activities and avoids electronic media use.
- Encourage families to remove all electronic devices from their child or teen’s bedroom, including TVs, video games, computers, tablets, and cell phones.
- Talk with family members about the negative consequences of bright light in the evening on sleep.
- If a child or adolescent is exhibiting mood or behavioral problems, consider insufficient sleep as a contributing factor.
Your kid’s hours of technology time have been linked with poor sleep quantity and quality. By all accounts, teens are not getting the recommended 8-10 hours of sleep. Your teen should review and improve their sleep hygiene, which includes sleep habits and sleep environment. Encouraging your child to put the phone away an hour before bedtime is a crucial step.
This article is derived from “Bright screens keep kids awake on school nights” (Brown University), “Screens at bedtime rob young teens of sleep” (University of Oregon), “5 screen-time tips for children’s sleep” (Penn State), “Sleepy teens wake at night to check social media” (Cardiff University), “Sleep smartphone use and lack of sleep linked” (Iowa State University) and is used under CC BY 4.0.