Sleep vs. Electronics: A Losing Battle for the Youth of America

Youth are particularly susceptible to the sleep-disrupting effects of screen time.Children and adolescents need sufficient sleep to keep up with their rapidly growing bodies and brains. A new study reveals that youth are particularly susceptible to the sleep-disrupting effects of screen time.

The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) recommends that elementary school age children get 9 to 12 hours of sleep per night, while teens should be sleeping a minimum of 8 hours and up to 10 hours. A recent study found that approximately 40% of adolescents are sleeping less than 7 hours a night, up 17% from just 2009 and up 58% from 1991.

More concerning, according to the study, is that the more time that children report spending online, the less sleep they got. The researchers point out that as the use of electronics and social media have gone up, length of sleep has declined.

Kids who don’t get enough sleep are at increased risk for health problems such as diabetes and obesity. They also have higher incidences of mood disorders, such as depression and anxiety. Learning difficulties also abound in children who don’t get enough sleep.

By now it’s a well-established fact that children’s sleep hygiene is affected by electronic use. Researchers at the University of Colorado Boulder wanted to take things a step further and examine studies that discuss why online media adversely affects sleep.

The researchers reviewed more than 60 studies related to sleep and young adults. Upon carefully reviewing the literature, their findings were published in the journal Pediatrics.

Related: Kicking Tech to the Curb: The Importance of Disconnecting Kids 

The researchers have pointed to several key reasons why electronic use impedes sleep. First, time spent on screens replaces time that would be spent on other things, such as homework or sleep. Children are spending more time on electronics, which results in pushing off their responsibilities, requiring them to stay up later to complete tasks.

An alarming trend is that an increasing number of children and adolescents are keeping an electronic device, such as a cell phone or an iPad, within close proximity while they sleep. Three out of four children keep an electronic device in their bedrooms at night, and 60% of those children use their electronics in the hour leading up to bedtime.

The authors point to research demonstrating that children’s minds are psychologically stimulated by content that they are viewing online. From playing video games to sending and receiving text messages, children’s brains are increasingly aroused.

Finally, the researchers examined studies that discussed the effects of light emitted from the devices, showing how it has an impact on hormones, circadian rhythm, and alertness.

Related: Campaign Encourages to Delay Smartphone Use Until 8th grade

The authors of the study point out that children are more susceptible to the effects of light on the body, due to their under-developed eyes.  Exposure to artificial light in the evening hours signals the pineal gland to suppress making the sleep hormone, melatonin.  As such, sleepiness is delayed, and the circadian rhythm of the body is thrown off.

“Light is our brain clock’s primary timekeeper,” explained lead author Monique LeBourgeois. “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.”

The researchers plan to continue their studies.  In a five-year NIH-funded study that launched this past summer, researchers measure melatonin levels in children exposed to various intensities of light.

LeBorgois offered the following advice to parents:

  • Limit media use the hour before your child’s bed time.
  • Turn off devices with screens before bed and charge them somewhere outside bedrooms.
  • Remove things like TVs, computers, tablets and cellphones from your child’s room.
  • Set an example by adhering to the same rules yourself.

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