Tablets before bedtime cause sleep disruption

Sigman was recently interviewed on British TV – watch the clip here – about how the use of tablets and other electronic devices can disrupt children’s sleep – indeed adults’ sleep will also be affected by what is known as “Blue Light” that these tech products emit.

The light from digital devices is “short-wavelength-enriched,” so it has a higher concentration of blue light than natural light – and blue light affects levels of the sleep-inducing hormone melatonin more than any other wavelength.

“Recreational screen time has now moved in to the bedroom,” warned Sigman.

“There is a strong link between tablet or any type of small screen that emits what is known as ‘blue light’ – good in the morning as it wakes us up; bad in the night as it wakes us up.

“The Kindle Paperwhite doesn’t emit the same levels of blue light. And there are filter glasses and apps that actually change the type of light, but light isn’t the only reason.

“Brains are being stimulated before bedtime in the way that books don’t do. Exciting games just before bedtime is not a good idea. Electronic devices should be switched off at least an hour before bedtime,” the expert warns.

Big screen TV television in Kids bedroom
 

It’s not necessarily all bad

Experts who regard some screen time as beneficial urge parents to pay attention to how their kids act during and after watching TV, playing video games, or on the computer online. “If they're using high-quality, age-appropriate media, their behaviour is positive, and their screen-time activities are balanced with plenty of healthy screen-free ones, there's no need to worry.”

But even these parents should consider creating a schedule that works for their family: including weekly screen-time limits, limits on the kinds of screens they can use, and guidelines on the types of activities they can do or programmes they can watch. See our guidelines below.

It’s important to get your kids' input as well – media literacy and self-regulation help buy in. It’s also a great opportunity to discover what your kids like watching, letting you introduce new shows and apps for them to try.

So how much screen time for children?

The simple answer: not much. None for children under two. That’s right. The experts suggest that babies and toddlers are kept away from all screens. Sorry CBeebies.

Children aged 2-5 years should have no more than an hour a day, and children aged 5-18 years should have no more than two hours a day. That's a tough call for teenagers, especially with homework often requiring computer time. But remember that the real danger is non-educational, leisure screen time, so you may wish to discount homework screen time.

Parents should be able to decide if these strictures are too harsh, and allow some screen time flexibility, but not caring at all about the amount of time your children spend in front of screens is dangerous.

Family screen time guidelines

Parents and Children’s Screen Time guidelines

Reduce exposure

Minimum screen time for children under three. The French government recommends no screen time in this age group. A maximum of two hours leisure screen time for children aged over 3. This does not include homework.

Check access and availability

Don’t allow TVs, computers or any screen-based device into a child’s bedroom. Sigman relates that he has spoken to many parents who have regretted allowing screens into bedrooms and feel removing them later is harder than refusing them in the first place. Even though it may be difficult, you should take the screens away from the bedroom. Otherwise you risk your child’s cognitive and physical health.

Set rules

Most parents haven’t devised screen-time protocols for their children, and need to create media-free zones in their homes, banish TV dinners, and put away their own digital devices when communicating with their children, he urges.

Explain the reasons

Don’t just switch off the telly, tablet or computer – explain to your child why you are limiting screen time. Discuss the health benefits of reduced screen time. Children will listen to the health reasons for reduced screen time if the dangers are clearly pointed out.

Sigman debunks the notions that children who have little screen time will be less likely to learn as much as those who do enjoy unlimited time in front of computers or the TV. They also won’t rebel later in life.

Technology is a tool for learning, not the end in its own right.

Parental role modelling

Ever catch yourself checking your email, using your smartphone or watching TV while your child is trying to talk to you? Stop using the device and communicate with your child face to face. This will help establish empathy and also set a good example of the child.

The parent is a child’s primary role model, and sticking the kids in front of a screen is an example of what is known as benign neglect.

Don’t have meals in front of the TV, and don’t keep reaching for your smartphone while in front of the child. It tells the child that constant screen time is acceptable. And it will do you good, too!

Mums need to nag

It might sound sexist but Dr Sigman claims that a mother’s nagging – “maternal monitoring” in nicer terms – is the best way to get children to change their behaviour. Dads need to enforce the rules, too.

Remove background noise

You may not realise it but passive viewing is ruining your child’s concentration. A child’s attention will wander if you’re watching the TV news in another part of the room.

Monitor use

Take an average week and look at how much screen time your child, and indeed the whole family, is subjecting themselves to. Add up the favourite TV shows, smartphone and tablet app play, Internet browsing and video games, and that two hours is filled up very quickly.

Take breaks

Screen time often leads to over stimulation so take breaks to calm down a child’s brain.

Stop multitasking

Multitasking is for adults, not children. Deep concentration in kids will lead to better, more creative thinkers. Research suggests that trying to get children to multitask actually makes them worse at multitasking because they don’t learn effective concentration skills.

No screens before bedtime

Take a gap between screen time and sleep. Most screens these days use LCDs that emit a blue light that inhibits sleep and disrupts the circadian rhythm (body clock). Remember that the bedroom is not an entertainment centre. It’s the place children go to sleep.

Apple baby chic 

Alternatives to screen time

Dr Sigman is a big believer in what he calls the “gift of boredom”. He rubbishes the idea that the worst thing that can happen to a child is for he or she to be bored. Children, he says, need to learn how to deal with boredom. Being over stimulated is worse than being bored. Learning to cope with being bored leads to greater self sufficiency, and less risk that children later become addicted to unhealthy activities to fill such gaps.

Alternatives include:

Physical activity. Screen time is usually sedentary so getting the child up and moving is by far the healthier option. The latest scientific research actually suggests that screen-time sitting is worse for one’s health than standard sitting because of the over-stimulation that screen time induces in the user.

If you must use gadgets maybe invest in an activity tracker, from the likes of Fitbit or Jawbone. See Best Activity Trackers. There’s even an Leapfrog activity tracker for very young children.

Being fitter, however, does not take away the harmful effects of screen time. Even keep-fit enthusiasts suffer ill effects of spending too much time sitting down.

The Journal of the American College of Cardiology ran a study in Scotland that found that “recreational sitting, as reflected by television/screen viewing time, is related to raised mortality and cardiovascular disease risk regardless of physical activity participation.”

Increased physical activity is, of course, beneficial but it doesn’t mean you won’t suffer an increased risk of death from over-doing your screen time.

So reduce hours of screen time by replacing with more physical activity, not just getting fitter while still spending too much time in front of the telly, computer or games console.

Hours of sedentary behaviour is linked not only to obesity, but other health problems such as type 2 diabetes, cardiovascular disease and stroke. While you’re thinking of how much time your kid is sitting down in front of a screen, do yourself a favour and have a walk about yourself.

Social activity. Don’t fool yourself that being on Facebook all day is social. It’s vital that kids get out and interact with other children in real life and not in phony virtual worlds.

Hobbies. It might not feel like it sometimes but children are very good at working out ways of filling their time when they have to, and finding out some stimulating hobbies – art, craft, fishing, sports, Lego, kites, collecting, bird watching, astronomy, cooking, museums, photography, music, gardening, etc – shouldn’t be too difficult.

Now Read: How to keep your kids safe online and block websites

Also: Best headphones for kids - keep your child's hearing safe with these kid-friendly headphones.

 Dr Aric Sigman Screen Time

About Dr Aric Sigman

A Fellow of the Royal Society of Medicine Dr Aric Sigman has a Bachelor of Science (Honours) degree in Psychology, a Master of Science degree in The Neurophysiological Basis of Behaviour, and a Ph.D. in the field of the role of attention in autonomic nervous system self-regulation.

The British Medical Association British Medical Journals’ Archives of Disease in Childhood has recently published his paper on screen time as its leading article. Dr Sigman has addressed the European Parliament Working Group on the Quality of Childhood in the European Union, in Brussels, on the impact of electronic media and screen dependency. In 2012, the EU Parliamentary Working Group published his report on the impact of electronic media and screen dependency. Dr Sigman's previous books include The Spoilt Generation and Remotely Controlled: How Television is Damaging Our Lives. 

He has published other papers, including Well Connected?: The Biological Implications of 'Social Networking', is published in The Biologist, Vol 56(1), the journal of the Society of Biology.?

His previous paper Visual Voodoo, on the biological effects associated with watching television, also published in The Biologist, and his talk at the Houses of Parliament, caused widespread public debate.