We all know that sleep is important for growing children, and that they often aren’t getting enough shut-eye. But a recent report shows just how serious the problem might be. Yet, even if you get your kids to bed on time, they may have trouble falling asleep. The culprit? Increased use of technology.
The results of a survey conducted by the Centers for Disease Control show that 68.9 percent of children in the United States don’t get enough sleep. Students who get less than eight hours of sleep per night are 86 percent more likely to seriously consider suicide, and 60 percent more likely to smoke cigarettes or drink alcohol. Sleep deprivation also leads to memory loss, poor focus, and weight gain. In recent years, studies have suggested that habitual Internet use and computer gaming can lead to lost sleep.
“Sleep is really important, but it seems to take a backseat these days. Media and electronics are available 24-seven, and it makes it harder to go to sleep,” says Kyla Boyse, a registered nurse with the University of Michigan and a mother of three.
At her clinic, Boyse has seen first-hand the effects of electronics on quality of sleep for growing children and teens. She recommends that parents remove all electronics from the bedroom. That means TVs, computers, and even cellphones and their chargers have to go. Even when kids are not using the electronics, the devices emit high levels of electromagnetic radiation, which disrupts melatonin production — a key player in sleep pattern regulation. Bright, unnatural light from electronic screens can also stimulate the brain and disrupt circadian rhythms.
In fact, electronics are so powerful in affecting a child’s quality of sleep that Dr. Victoria Dunckley, a child and adolescent psychiatrist in California and blogger for Psychology Today, recommends a three-week electronic fast for all her patients who have sleep problems. Among her patients who have prior behavioral or mental problems, Dunckley sees a 50 percent decrease in symptoms relating to poor sleep after the fast. Among regularly developing children, she sees nearly a 100 percent decrease in symptoms relating to trouble sleeping. Young children are particularly sensitive to the negative effects of electronics, because their brains are still forming.
“It really makes a difference. If it didn’t make such a big difference, I wouldn’t be so radical about it,” says Dunckley. “Disrupting the circadian rhythm even 30 minutes a week can ... upset everything.”
Of course, this is even if your child goes to sleep at bedtime. But many of today’s children and teens eschew sleep for engrossing video games, texting conversations, and Facebooking. According to the American Academy of Pediatrics, 75 percent of teens use cellphones at night when they should be sleeping, and after 9 pm, 34 percent of adolescents reported text messaging, 44 percent reported talking on the telephone, 55 percent reported being online, and 24 percent played computer games. Media use also often stimulates the brain, which makes it harder to sleep hours after you’ve turned your electronic devices off.
Furthermore, electronics use often displaces physical activity, which helps in promoting high-quality sleep. The National Wildlife Federation reported in 2011 that playing outdoors increases a child’s exposure to natural daylight and exercise, which can lead to a marked increase in quality of sleep.
Lack of sleep is nothing to snore at. The 10 hours that children are supposed to get at night help them strengthen their immune systems, process emotion-laden memories into their long-term memory, and grow. Sleep deprivation actually interferes with the production of the human growth hormone. Studies have also suggested that children’s sleep habits set the foundation for sleep habits into the adolescent and adult years.
But what if your child has schoolwork to finish? Surely a couple hours of sleep sacrificed in the name of studying, often on the computer, is no big loss. Dunckley disagrees. She says that electronics actually suppress the frontal lobe and cortex. The frontal lobe is linked to long-term memory and other higher mental functions, such as recognizing long-term consequences for actions. The cerebral cortex also plays an important role in memory, attention, language, thought, and consciousness. In other words, children who use electronics too much and don’t get enough sleep will actually not do as well in school, and will have trouble developmentally.
Never mind the schoolwork, Dunckley says, your child’s health is the number one priority.
Of course, in a world of smartphones, over scheduling, and busy parents, how does one begin to limit a child’s use of electronics? Here are some tips:
• Set a good example. Try to do all your work during the day, and turn off your electronics after dinner. Not only will it set a good example for your children, it will help you relax as well.
• Limit screen time to two hours a day. Dunckley says that limiting all screen time (this includes computers at school, TV, video games, etc.) to two hours significantly reduces sleep problems.
• Discourage electronics use after 7 pm. When it starts getting dark, your body naturally begins preparing itself for bedtime, and artificial light can confuse it.
• Get outside. For every hour of screen time Dunckley recommends an hour of outdoor activity. “The benefits of outdoor activity can help offset the negative impacts of electronics,” she says.
• Take electronics out of the bedroom. Kids who learn to fall asleep in front of the TV never actually achieve deep sleep because their brain is still being stimulated. But Boyse says that there’s no need to go cold turkey all at once. First, take the TV out of the bedroom, then the computer, and then the cellphone. Before long, your child won’t even miss the devices!
• Be firm. Boyse acknowledges that there might be some whining and balking on the part of the kids when you first try to limit electronic use.
“But one thing that parents need to remember,” says Boyse, “is you’re the parent, and it’s up to the parent to do what’s right for the kid.”
Jenny Chen is a freelance writer. She has written for Washington Parent and Parent Connection.
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