There are two aspects of technology use that can disrupt your child’s sleep habits as well as your own. First, any type of artificial light, including that coming from televisions and ipads, can throw off your body’s circadium rhythm and suppress the release of melataonin, an important sleep hormone. Secondly, the way in which these devices stimulate the brain make it harder to settle our thoughts and get to sleep, leading to insomnia.
The effects of artificial light on our sleep cycles
Digital life today means being surrounded by screens. Even though these screens may not seem that bright to you, the brain can respond to them like sunlight. Research has found that watching television, playing games or reading on a tablet for 2 hours can cause melatonin levels to drop by 22%.
A study by Mariana Figueiro of the Lighting Research Center at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute and her colleagues found that 2 hours of iPad use at maximum brightness was enough to suppress a person’s normal nighttime release of melatonin, thus disrupting their normal sleep cycle.
The dosage of light was also important. The overall brightness and exposure time, as well as the wavelength, determine whether it affects melatonin. Light in the blue-and-white range emitted by today’s tablets can do the trick; as can laptops and desktop computers, which emit even more of the disrupting light but are usually positioned farther from the eyes, which ameliorates the light’s effects.
It’s not just the immediate problems this causes for us during the night at hand, but the potential long-term effects of too much PM technology use. “If you do that chronically, for many years, it can lead to disruption of the circadian system,” says Figueiro, potentially leading to serious health consequences down the road. (Sutherland, 2013)
Technology use and overstimulation of the brain
The other problem is that many types of digital technology can stimulate the brain in a way that makes it harder to get to sleep. Playing computer games, surfing the web, chatting or texting back and forth with 5 different friends at once; all of these activities can hyper-stimulate the brain and make it harder to fall asleep once the time comes to actually power down our mind for the night.
Why you should monitor what young children are watching during the day
A study in the August 2012 Pediatrics found that switching to more age appropriate TV programming throughout the day produces “long-lasting, significant reductions in sleep problems,” says lead author Michelle Garrison of Seattle Children’s Research Institute. (Healy, 8-6-2012) Without changing the amount of television children watched, they had parents switch up programming, and found that preschoolers with sleep problems improved in both sleep and measures of daytime tiredness over the course of the 12-month study. Those who didn’t have sleep problems at the outset were also less likely to develop them.
It wasn’t just about inappropriate, R-rated content, but cutting back on television meant for older age groups, such as SpongeBob Squarepants or Scooby-Doo in favor of more preschool-oriented programs such as Sesame Street, Dora the Explorer and Curious George. The reason for this likely has to do with overstimulation: In the same way that worrying about a big project or overexertion after a 14-hour workday can leave an adult’s brain in hyperactive mode, watching programming that is just a little bit too advanced throughout the day might leave a child’s brain in hyper-drive, creating problems falling asleep at night.
We wouldn’t go so far as to say you need to force your child to give up a favorite show just because it might be slightly advanced for them. This type of oppressive parenting often creates more problems than it solves. Besides, learning itself is based on children exposed to stimuli that is a little above their head, otherwise they would stay stuck in limbo and never move forward.
But if your child is having sleep problems or finds it difficult to go to sleep at bedtime, you might want to consider adjusting the type of TV content they consume towards more age-appropriate programming. Also keep in mind that more media exposure in general has been linked to increased sleep problems.
Secondary Effects of Technology Use on Sleep
Technology can also disrupt sleep through the changes it provokes in a child’s life style. For example, television and tablet computers tend to keep kids sedentary. So when a child is sitting in front of a screen for 3 or 4 hours, that’s time that isn’t spent running around outside. This means less exorcise and less sun exposure, both of which are important for healthy sleep cycles.
Rules for Nighttime Technology Use
Here are some simple rules that can limit the disruption that technology has on your family’s sleep habits:
- Avoid using screens or digital devices at least 30 minutes before lights out, to allow your body some time to recover.
- If possible, use special glasses or a screen protector to block or filter out blue light, the wavelength most disruptive to sleep.
- Avoid using a cell phone before bedtime. While the concern about cell phones and brain cancer has been overblown (from the research we’ve seen, if there’s any link at all, it’s so small as to be rather meaningless), studies do show that cell phone signals can activate or excite parts of the brain via the electrical signals it sends and receives through the airwaves. THIS HAPPENS WHENEVER THE PHONE IS ON, regardless of whether you or your child are talking on it at the time. This can be especially problematic for the many teenagers who go to sleep with the phone literally at their ear.
So about an hour or so before bed, consider putting the cell phones away and sticking to land lines. At the very least, don’t let your child get in the habit of taking her phone with her to bed. Turn it off and place it atop a dresser or inside a drawer.
- When you do use a kindle or iPad at night, something as simple as turning down the screen brightness or holding it a little farther away can have a big impact on how it affects your sleep. When you do use these devices, use them for reading, not for playing games or searching the web, which stimulate the brain in a very different way and can make it harder to get to sleep.