Technology at Night

How Screens Affect Your Kids’ Sleep

Every one of us knows how important it is to get a good night’s sleep, yet we all routinely burn the candle at both ends, regularly getting far less than the seven to nine hours recommended for adults by the National Sleep Foundation. For children, that recommendation increases to nine to 11 hours, and according to the Centers for Disease Control, over one-third of children aged 4 months to 17 years do not get enough sleep. And when the kids don’t sleep, mom and dad don’t sleep, either. Yes, the overall business of our daily lives is partly to blame for our inadequate sleep, but our attachment to and reliance upon technology at all hours of the day is also a key contributor. This is particularly impactful on pre-adolescents and adolescents, who need adequate sleep for healthy physical and mental development. Good sleep is linked to improved concentration and productivity, a healthy body weight, lower risk of heart disease, diabetes, and depression, and improved immune function. So, screens down, and sleep tight!

How Do Screens Affect Sleep?

Our bodies operate on 24-hour sleep-wake cycles known as circadian rhythms. These rhythms are heavily dependent on exposure to light, which tells us when it’s time to be awake and when it’s time for sleep. When light enters the eyes, it stimulates a signal in the back of the retina that runs down the optic nerve to the circadian clock in the Suprachiasmatic Nucleus (SCN) of the brain. The SCN triggers other parts of the brain to control hormones, body temperature and other functions that make us feel either sleepy or alert. Anything that exposes you to light at odd hours and misaligns your sleep cycle with natural cycles of light and dark can throw off your circadian rhythms. Electronic devices such as cell phones, tablets, computers and televisions emit blue light, which interferes with our circadian rhythm by making the brain think it’s daytime. This delays production of the sleep hormone melatonin, which can lead to insomnia and poor sleep. Exposure to blue light in the evening can also reduce time in slow-wave and REM sleep, which are crucial for mental and physical health.

Kids and Blue Light

Research suggests that children are particularly vulnerable to the negative effects of blue light. As we age, our eyes become less sensitive to light in general, which means blue light more severely impacts young people. Subsequently, exposure to blue light suppresses melatonin production in children by nearly twice as much as it does in adults. When kids use screen-based technology before bed, they tend to fall asleep later and get less sleep overall; the National Sleep Foundation says kids between 6 and 17 who have a least one electronic device in their bedroom sleep a full hour less on school nights. When children and adolescents get inadequate sleep, it can negatively affect behavior, mental focus and academic performance.

Cut Down on Blue Light

Ideally, cell phones, laptops, tablets and TVs should be shut down three hours before bed. Adults and children alike have trouble with this, and of course, the kids will be more likely to follow suit if you do it, too. However, it certainly isn’t easy to get kids to step away from their devices, especially if they’re using them for homework. But, there are steps you can take to reduce the impact late-night blue-light exposure has on your family’s sleep.

Dim the Lights

It’s not just phones, TVs and laptop screens that emit blue light; fluorescent and LED bulbs also emit blue light that can interfere with your sleep. Dim the lights, or consider investing in sleep-promoting light bulbs that emit less blue light than their traditional counterparts.

Have a Device-Free Dinner

Prime the pump for an evening away from screens by designating the dinner table a screen-free zone. You could ask everyone to leave them in another room, or silence them, or have the kids decorate a shoe box into which everyone – adults included – drops their phones before sitting down at the table. Families who share evening meals have more positive health outcomes than those who do not, and those positive effects are mitigated by the presence of technology at the table.

Develop a Screen-Free Bedtime Routine

Even if you and your kids are on your laptops and phones or watching television in the evenings, you can still step away in the time right before bed. Create a bedtime routine that includes brushing teeth, combing hair, taking a shower, preparing clothes or backpacks for the next day of school, reading a book, writing in a journal, or just recapping the day with your child.

Invest in “Blue-Blocker” Glasses

If it’s too difficult for your family to completely step away from screens in the evening, consider purchasing glasses that block blue light. The lenses filter blue light to help you sleep, and also protect the retina and reduce eye strain. And, there are plenty of affordable options that start at around $15.

Store Electronics Away from the Bed

While it’s tempting to plug phones and other devices in right next to the bed, you and your kids will all sleep better if you let them charge in another room. Simply setting a device down and walking away from it can be part of a bedtime routine. And while many people rely on their phones to wake them up, there are countless other cool and fun alarm clocks that will do the job: a retro clock radio, an old fashioned bell alarm or flip-clock, an analog (gasp!) clock with a sweeping arm. And if you let your kids pick the alarm clock they want, they’ll be much more likely to use it!