MD Mama

Why Parents Need to Get All the Screens Out of Kids' Bedrooms

Thumbnail image for Thumbnail image for kids_on_iPads_before_bed_800.jpgIt used to be that when it came to sleep and screen time, all we had was a 'big screen' problem: televisions. Now we have a 'small screen' problem.

We've known for a really long time that having a television in the bedroom leads to less sleep for kids. Not only does it get in the way of sleep because kids are, well, watching it, but it gets in the way of sleep because the blue light from the screen tricks the brain into thinking it's daytime--and delays the release of the natural chemical melatonin that helps us fall asleep. And if the show they were watching before bed was scary or violent or otherwise not exactly soothing, it compounds the problem.

But now, lots of kids sleep with small screens--cell phones, smart phones or an iPod touch--nearby. A bunch of researchers (many of them from here in Boston) realized that these screens might be worse when it comes to sleep, for a bunch of reasons. First of all, they are interactive, sometimes in ways that make it hard for kids to put them down. Second, they are held closer to the face, so that blue light problem could be worse. Third, they make noises even when you aren't using them (as anyone who has been woken by a text message knows).

This is bad. Because sleep is really crucial. When kids don't get enough sleep, they are more likely to be overweight--and have mental, behavioral, and school problems. They may be more likely to get sick (sleep plays an important role in our immune system), and--get this--may be more likely to have hypertension and other cardiovascular problems as adults. Not good. This is not a problem we can ignore.

So the researchers looked at data from questionnaires filled out by 4th and 7th graders in Massachusetts public schools as part of an ongoing study on childhood obesity. They asked them about whether they slept with a big or small screen nearby, they asked them how long they slept, and they asked them if they felt like they got enough or good sleep. The results were published in the journal Pediatrics.

Overall, a full 54 percent of the students slept with a small screen nearby. Personally, I'm a bit amazed by that--remember, these are 4th and 7th graders. As many as 65 percent of the 7th graders and 46 percent of the 4th graders had a cell phone, smart phone, or iPod touch nearby. And three-quarters of both groups had a TV in their room. (I didn't realize our family had fallen so much into the minority, wow.)

And indeed, having a small screen nearby led to getting about 20 minutes less sleep each weekday night--and a 40 percent higher chance of feeling less rested. The big screen problem was there too--having a television in the bedroom led to 18 minutes less sleep and a later bedtime generally. This might not sound like a lot, but given how many kids don't get the recommended 8 to 10 hours of sleep, anything that eats into sleep is a problem.

Please, parents, pay attention to this. Our youth are sleeping less and less--and it is truly not good for them. There are some contributors to this that are harder to fix, like early school start times and being over-scheduled with homework and activities--but the screen problem is really fixable.

Get the screens out.

Please, have your kids charge their phones and iPods somewhere else besides the bedroom at night. Many youth may feel that they can't part with their devices, but the truth is, unless there are really extraordinary circumstances (and I mean really extraordinary, ones that parents and youth would need to discuss), there is no need for 24-hour connection to phones. Some of my patients say they need them to wake them in the morning; parents, please introduce these kids to alarm clocks.

While you're at it, get the TV out too. There's just no need for that either. Not only do kids with televisions in their rooms sleep less, they watch more TV--and watching more TV is really never good for you. I get that this could be a big culture change for some families, but give it a try.

Cell phones and smart phones and other such devices have become so quickly part of life for our youth that it's been hard to keep track of all the ways they are changing their lives. Many of the changes have been good--but many of them, like interfering with sleep, are bad. So lay down some rules--and keep your kid healthier not just now, but in the future.

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