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According to new research, devices in the bedroom are associated with the loss of time and quality of sleep in children
Even kids and teens who don’t stay up late online are losing sleep
These days, teachers are often faced with classrooms full of yawning students who stayed up late taking selfies or playing online games.
For children and teenagers, using mobile phones, tablets and computers at night is associated with lost time and sleep quality, according to new research. Even children who don’t use their phones or the other technology that clutters their rooms at night are losing their eyesight and becoming prone to daytime sleepiness, according to analysis published today in JAMA Pediatrics.
The analysis found “a consistent pattern of effect across a wide range of countries and settings,” said Dr. Ben Carter, lead author and senior lecturer in biostatistics at King’s College London.
Carter and colleagues scoured the medical literature to identify hundreds of applicable studies conducted between January 1, 2011 and June 15, 2015. They chose 20 research reports involving a total of 125,198 children , evenly divided by gender, with an average age of 14 and a half. After extracting the relevant data, Carter and his co-authors performed their own meta-analysis.
Few parents will be surprised by the results: The team found a “strong and consistent association” between the use of media devices before bed and inadequate amount of sleep, poor sleep quality and excessive sleepiness during the day.
Surprisingly, however, Carter and his team found that children who did not use their devices in their bedrooms still had disrupted sleep and likely suffered from the same problems. The lights and sounds emitted by the technology, as well as the content itself, can be too stimulating.
Although Carter admits that one weakness of the analysis was “how the data were collected in the primary studies: self-reported by parents and children,” many of us probably recognize the habits of our own families reflected in the statistics.
A large-scale survey conducted in the United States by the National Sleep Foundation (PDF) reported in 2013 that 72% of all children and 89% of adolescents have at least one device in their sleep environment. Most of this technology is used near bedtime, the same report found.
According to Carter and his co-authors, this ubiquitous technology negatively influences children’s sleep by delaying their sleep time, as they have just watched a movie or played one more game.
The light emitted by these devices can also affect the circadian rhythm, the biological timekeeping processes of the internal clock, including body temperature and hormone release, the researchers say. A specific hormone, melatonin, induces tiredness and contributes to the timing of our sleep-wake cycles. Electronic lights can delay the release of melatonin, disrupting this cycle and making it harder to fall asleep.
Carter and his co-authors also suggest that online content can be psychologically stimulating and keep children and teens awake well past the time they turn off their devices and try to sleep.
“Sleep is vital for children,” said Dr. Sujay Kansagra, director of the pediatric neurology sleep medicine program at Duke University Medical Center, who was not involved in the new analysis. “We know that sleep plays a crucial role in brain development, memory, self-regulation, attention, immune function, cardiovascular health and more.”
Kansagra, author of “My Child Won’t Sleep,” noted that the period of greatest brain development is in our first three years of life, which corresponds to the time when we need and sleep the most. “It’s hard to believe this is a coincidence.”
Kansagra said it’s possible parents weren’t reporting kids using devices at night, but more likely, the technology was simply interfering with sleep hygiene. “For example, children who are allowed to keep their devices in their room may be more likely to avoid a good sleep routine, which we know is helpful for sleep,” she said.
Dr. Neil Kline, representative of the American Sleep Association, agrees that sleep plays an integral role in a child’s healthy development, although “we don’t know all the science behind it. There are even there is some research that shows an association between ADHD and some sleep disorders.”
In many ways, the new study’s findings are not a surprise. “Sleep hygiene is being greatly affected by technology, especially in adolescence,” said Kline, who bases his opinion not only on research but on his own “personal experience and also the anecdotes of many others sleep experts.”
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Sleep hygiene – tips that help facilitate good, continuous and adequate sleep – includes having a quiet room. “And that would mean removing items that interfere with sleep, such as electronics, the television, and even pets if they interfere with sleep,” Kline said.
A more important tip comes from the National Sleep Foundation, which recommends at least 30 minutes of “gadget-free transition time” before bed. Turn off for better sleep.
Other recommendations for good sleep hygiene include not exercising (physically or mentally) too close to bedtime; establish a regular sleep schedule; limit exposure to light before bed; avoiding stimulants such as alcohol, caffeine and nicotine in the hours before going to sleep; and creating a dark, comfortable and peaceful sleep environment.