While digital tech was invented to be a time saver and tool of efficiency, and it is, research is showing how excessive media access is eating away at quality time and creating health habits that are inefficient for growing children. And while those electronic devices are having a myriad of negative affects on our little ones, I want to focus on some recent findings about screen time and sleep.
Screens and sleep research findings
Now that tablets and smartphones have been around for a decade, studies are beginning to release reports on the very real ways screen time is affecting our children’s sleep habits.
We know how important the role of sleep is for healthy child development — from infants to preschoolers (and beyond) — which is why it surprises me that companies are now developing and marketing apps to babies as young as six months old! The earlier screens and mobile electronic devices are introduced, the greater the effects of screen time on our children’s health and well-being.
Study after study has reiterated how important the role of sleep is to the cognitive development of children, especially in the first two years. Per Scientific Reports:
…reduced sleep duration in the first two years of life may have long-term consequences on later developmental outcomes. These findings are mirrored by several follow-up studies in children and adolescents, showing significant associations between sleep difficulties or irregular bedtime and later problems with mental and physical health and lower cognitive and academic performance.
For example, a study published in Scientific Reports found that extending down the age of screen time exposure, to infants and toddlers, correlated with disrupted sleep in those babies. The study followed babies, ranging in age from six to thirty-six months old, and their interactions with mobile electronic devices, such as tablets or smartphones. The findings are eye-opening, pertaining to those infants and toddlers with daily screen use, finding that the amount of overall sleep lost by babies 6-36 months old, per hour of screen time use (over maximum guidelines), amounted to 15.6 minutes. Wow.
In addition, a review of over five dozen studies, targeting children ages 5 through 17, found that “more screen time is associated with delayed bedtimes, fewer hours of sleep and poorer sleep quality.”
So what exactly are the recommended screen time guidelines? Per the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP), screen time recommendations are as follows:
- For children under 18 months old, screen time should be limited to video chatting
- Children 18-24 months should only be exposed to high-quality media, with parents watching alongside to help them understand and engage with what they’re watching
- Children 2-5 years old should be limited to 1 hour per day of high-quality programming; again, parents should watch along with them to help them make real world connections
- Children 6 years and older should have established and consistent limits on the time spent using media, with parents ensuring that digital media doesn’t take the place of sleep, physical activity or real-life personal interactions
Strategies for managing screens and sleep
I think the first step to managing screen time in your home is paying attention to your own habits, in addition to those of other household members. Take a look at what those apps geared towards babies and toddlers are teaching, and replicate those activities with physical play, blocks and flashcards. As tempting as it may seem (we all need a bathroom break), make sure that you’re supervising all screen time activity with your little ones, and engage your child as they interact with media. And most importantly, for both you and your child, shut off devices (this includes the television) at least an hour prior to bedtime, to reduce blue light exposure. Lastly, for those of you with older children, make sure that mobile devices and screen electronics do not go into the bedroom at night.