While it’s long been known that staring at any type of electronic screen before bed can negatively impact how quickly individuals fall asleep and how much sleep they get, the exact mechanisms behind these sleep disruptions haven’t been well-studied. Now, a new study by psychologists and neuroscientists at University of Colorado, Boulder have discovered why nighttime screen time is so damaging to our sleep schedules. In a surprising find, the authors have also discovered that screen time before bed impacts children far worse than it does adults.
This new research examined sixty-seven separate studies of screen time and media habits among school-aged youth and teenagers between 1999 and 2014. The study has been published in the journal Pediatrics. CU Boulder psychologist Monique LeBourgeois, lead author of this groundbreaking new study, says that the problem with screen time before bed is the fact that children’s sensitivity to light is far more acute than adults:
Light is our brain clock’s primary timekeeper. We know younger individuals have larger pupils, and their lenses are more transparent, so their exposure and sensitivity to that light is even greater than in older individuals.
Other factors at play are the fact that most media content aimed at children is incredibly stimulating in order to hold children’s short attention spans, particularly when it comes to mobile games. These stimulating media can keep children’s brains firing late into the night, even hours after they view or play them.
Another factor is the fact that more and more children today have digital devices of their own. Phones and tablets make it easier than ever for kids to sneak in more screen time when they should be sleeping, yet this new study finds that some 75% of children have access to media devices in their own bedrooms.
When you consider that roughly 30% of preschool-aged children and 50%-90% of school-aged children aren’t getting enough sleep, the importance of parents monitoring the kids’ screen time cannot be overstated.
In order to curb the effects of media-based sleep disruptions, the authors of this new study echo the recommendations of several other pediatric groups which recommend limiting children’s screen time, particularly before bed. Could these sleep disruptions have long-term negative effects on kids’ academic performance or overall health? The latest research suggests it’s certainly possible. “The preschool years are a very sensitive time of development, during which, use of digital media is growing more and more pervasive,” LeBourgeois says. “There’s a lot we don’t know about how it may shape sleep and the body clock in little kids.”
When it comes down to your young kids, time before bed is much better spent reading or engaging in other low-stimulation activities. Since handheld digital media are such a new phenomenon, we ultimately don’t know the long-term effects of having access from such a young age. Is it really worth risking damaging your kids’ brains just to get a few minutes of peace and quiet at night?