Sleep Robbers: Technology Is Stealing Your Family’s Sleep

Technology may be the reason you aren't getting a full night's sleep

Sleep is essential for our child’s development and for our own health and well being. Sleep is important for learning and our memory, growth and immune function, for regulating emotions and stress. Disrupted sleep or sleep loss can negatively impact our child’s ability to pay attention, concentrate and learn. Sleep, while necessary is often taken for granted and research shows the amount of sleep that children, adolescents and adults are getting is continuing to decrease.

Electronic Devices & Sleep

We love our devices but they can have a  negative effect on our sleep. Adults and children are exposed to them now for longer periods and in greater quantity than ever before. A 2011 large scale survey found 95% of us (adolescents and adults) used some type of technology (television, computer, video game, or cell phone) at least a few nights per week within 1 hour of bedtime. Common Sense Media reports more than 30% of children play with a mobile device while they're still in diapers. Almost 75% of 13 to 17-year-olds have smartphones. Not used appropriately, our electronic devices have been found to intrude on sleep time by delaying the time to sleep and on the quality of sleep.

Negative Influences of Screen Time

  • Time consuming: Screen use in the evening is common and this behavior is consistently linked with delayed bedtime and shortened sleep overall for children and adolescents. Longer screen times may be affecting sleep by reducing the time spent doing other activities, such as exercise which is beneficial for sleep and sleep regulation.
  • Increased alertness: The viewed content or the interaction can affect sleep.  Videos, games, shows or e-books engage the brain which increases alertness by releasing hormones making it more difficult to fall asleep or to stay asleep.
  • Melatonin suppression: Melatonin is our “sleep timing” hormone; the one that tips us into sleep at the perfect “biological time” (given the chance). Our daytime exposure to natural light (think of the blue sky) suppresses melatonin production until night time when melatonin can be produced and when we need to sleep. Bright screens, fluorescent and LED lights emit more blue light, impacting sleep by delaying our “biological sleep clock” and our ability to fall asleep.
  • Poor sleep hygiene: Repeated use of electronic media in bed or in the bedroom undermines the relaxing and comforting association with our bed and bedroom as a sleep haven. Instead, the bed and bedroom become associated with electronic media use.

Adults, and more importantly, infants, children and adolescents are using electronic screens more often and using them up until bedtime, resulting in unhealthy sleep and sleep patterns. Limiting screen time leading up to bedtime is a priority for the entire family.

Screen Hygiene

  • Unplug 2 hours before bedtime: Create a digital curfew. This gives your brain a chance to unwind and get ready for sleep and doesn’t suppress melatonin production
  • Dim the lights: While blue light has the greatest effect on melatonin production, all white light has some blue light wavelengths. Dim the lights to reduce any disruptive effects.
  • Keep the bedroom screen free: Removing electronic devices from the bedroom provides a good sleep environment and promotes good sleep practices. Store/charge them in another room.
  • Screen time guidelines. Current American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) guidelines recommend that children under the age of 13 are limited to two hours per day, and children below five to less than one hour and children under two should have no screen time, including TV. New AAP guidelines reflecting the most current data are due to be released in October of 2016.
  • Stick to a regular sleep routine: Create a consistent zero screen bedtime routine. A regular predictable bedtime routine supports your child (and you) to fall asleep more quickly and easily. It results in less night waking and happier calmer, healthier child, parent and family
  • Use night lights: Avoid melatonin suppressing LED lights, instead use low wattage (4 – 7 watts) orange or red hued light which doesn’t give your brain the daytime alerting signal that blue or green light does.
  • Monitor your child's TV before bedtime: Some programs, including news shows, can be disturbing for children and are best avoided. They fuel imaginations and can create bedtime and nighttime sleep fears and problems. Encourage quiet activities before bed that are relaxing and enjoyable for your child.

Mary MacLeod is a certified child sleep consultant with Good Night Sleep Site Calgary and health care researcher. Proud mom of two teenaged children, she brings her training and experience to support each family with their own unique sleep struggles. Connect with Mary on her website or on Facebook and Twitter for sleep tips, articles and more.

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