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Want to get your kid to bed? Shut off the TV.

Posted by Dr. Claire McCarthy  January 14, 2013 07:56 AM

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If you want your child to get to bed earlier and easier, don't watch TV (or play video games) at night.

We pediatricians have thought and said this for a while, but a study just released in the journal Pediatrics backs us up. Researchers in New Zealand studied two thousand kids between the ages of five and eighteen to find out everything they did in the ninety minutes before bedtime. By everything I mean everything, including not just watching TV or playing video games but doing homework, brushing their teeth or going to the bathroom. They also looked at when the kids fell asleep. 

The kids that had screen time (especially those who watched more) fell asleep later.

There are three ways screen time does this:
  • Screen time often pushes bedtime later ("Mom, can I just see the end of this show?" "I'm almost done with this level!"). When there is a TV in the bedroom, this can be an even bigger problem.
  • The "blue light" emitted from the screens lowers melatonin level and so messes up the circadian rhythms that help kids fall asleep. So when they say they aren't sleepy, they mean it.
  • Scary or exciting shows or video games have a way of making you, well, scared or excited. It's not easy to fall asleep when you feel that way.
In the study, the kids who went to sleep earlier were ones who spend those ninety minutes doing sedentary non-screen activities (like reading--sadly, only nine percent of kids did that before bed) and self-care activities (like taking a bath).

I have to admit that in our house, TV is often a part of our evenings. We are a big and busy family, and curling up together on our big old couch and watching TV (although, one or more of us might be reading at the same time) together before starting the various bedtimes is something we enjoy.

However, I have to admit that getting our 7-year-old to fall asleep is hard. He has to be dragged away from the television if his older siblings (with later bedtimes) are still watching it, and after being tucked in to bed he frequently either calls us up to his room or traipses down the stairs to tell us that he can't sleep or that there might be a spider or that a noise has worried him.

So this study makes real sense to me not just as a pediatrician but a parent. I think that turning off the TV and spending the family time together doing something else--like reading, or playing a game, or just talking--would be a really good idea.

It's going to be a bit of a tough sell (including to my husband), but I'm willing to give it a try. What do you say--will you do it with me?
This blog is not written or edited by or the Boston Globe.
The author is solely responsible for the content.

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About MD Mama

Claire McCarthy, M.D., is a pediatrician and Medical Communications Editor at Boston Children's Hospital . An assistant professor of pediatrics at Harvard Medical School and a senior editor for Harvard More »

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