Touchscreens disrupting sleep in children

25 April 2017

Interview with

Dr Tim Smith, Birkbeck University of London

One of the most dramatic changes over the last decade has been the explosion of touchscreen devices in our homes, from tablets and smartphones right through to laptops and electronic books. And while they are bringing us enormous convenience and entertainment, a worrying trend is emerging: these devices are also affecting our sleep - particularly where children are concerned. A new study from Birkbeck University of London has found that up to 75% of the children they looked at used touchscreens on a daily basis, and there were knock-on effects. Katie Haylor spoke to study author Tim Smith.

Tim - We asked parents to complete an online questionnaire where they documented the media environment of their household. How many hours a day their child used touchscreen devices. As well as some standard questionnaires on sleep, general developmental milestones like walking and language as well as some other standard questionnaires.

Katie - What did you find?

Tim - From those questionnaires we were able to identify an association between the amount of time that the children spent using the touchscreens per day and their sleep behaviour. We found that the longer the children used a touchscreen device the less time they spent sleeping at night, and the longer it took them to fall asleep. Even when we controlled for known factors that might confound the effect like that age of the child, and even the exposure to other screens like TVs.

Katie - It feels great to get a good night’s sleep but why is it so important?

Tim - Sleep is really critical for our health and wellbeing. It allows us the rest to recover from the day, it allows us to purge our body of toxins and prepare for the rigours of the next day. It is also very critical for neural developments and memory consolidation and learning, and allows us to make stronger long term memories based on the experiences of the day and this is even amplified when we talk about young children. Infants spend most of their day asleep and there’s a lot of development, a lot of physical and mental change happening, so anything that can impact sleep may have long term consequences on their development.

Katie - So what does this mean? Should parents be controlling the amount of time their kids spend with touchscreen devices?

Tim - Right now we don't have any actual evidence of the consequence of this change in sleep on development and we need to do follow-on studies to be able to identify that. But there are guidelines out there which are based on more traditional screen media like TVs that have shown negative consequences of excessive screen time. And they generally recommend to limit the amount of time that children spend on screens per day, and specifically protect parts of the day which might be critical like the hours before bedtime to make sure that the children don’t have screen exposure and can prepare themselves for sleep.

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