Sleep is one of the most important parts of staying mentally and physically healthy. Quality sleep is essential to self-regulation, immune function,and cardiovascular health, development of the brain, memory, attention and motivation. Inadequate sleep, has been associated with poor mental health outcomes, including ADHD-like symptoms, low mood, anxiety, depression, poor performance at work and school, and even diabetes and heart disease.
One of the major contributors to poor sleep is digital media. This is especially true in children as they have not developed an ability to self-regulate and are more likely to spend extended periods on their phones, computer, or in front of the TV. Use of technology before bed has been shown to lead to trouble falling and maintaining sleep, less sleep overall, a lower quality of sleep and more sleep disturbances.
Technology leads to negative sleep outcomes for a number of reasons:
- Light emissions: Light tells your brain that it is day time, and prevents the brain from relaxing and preparing for sleep. One of the major reasons is due to light’s effect on sleep/wake hormones. The blue light emitted from LED screens reduces the synthesis of melatonin – the sleep promoting hormone- and the removal of cortisol, a hormone involved in keeping you awake and alert. Natural sleep-wake cycles therefore become disrupted.
- Stimulating content: Exciting and stimulating information can cause emotional and hormonal responses (such as release of adrenalin) that do not go away immediately. These cause the brain to remain active and alert even if the light and stimulation is removed. They can also cause bad dreams or anxiety which result in trouble sleeping.
- Motivation to stay awake: Social media, TV programs and video games are available and active 24 hours a day. There is constantly something to take part in or someone to speak to. The fear of missing out, or the urge to watch just one more program can cause children to stay up long past their bed time, or be woken up in the middle of the night by a message or notification on their phone. Increased use of technology also prevents children from taking part in other activities which lead to healthy sleep, like exercise.
In order to help your children get a better night’s sleep, a number of household rules will need to be put in place. Importantly, these rules should apply to everyone in the house so that children are more likely to adhere to them.Read more on behavioural modelling here.
Use some of the following as tips for improving sleep quality in your household:
- Prevent digital media use before bed time. Set a ‘black-out time’ and enforce it. The TV should be switched off and cell-phones placed in an inaccessible location at least 30 minutes before bed time. For more highly stimulating activities, like video games, this should be at least an hour. As parents, keep in mind that children model what their parents do. If they are not allowed to watch TV but you are they will put up more of a fight. Background noise of the TV while trying to fall asleep can also be distracting.
- Replace use of digital media in this time with less stimulating activities. These can be reading, board or card games, family discussions, bath time, playing music, art or writing. These activities will prevent your children from becoming bored and craving digital media, help them develop other skills and family relationships, as well as allow their brain to relax before bed.
- See the bedroom as a sanctuary for sleep. Remove all technology from the bedroom where possible and don’t allow your children to take their phones to bed. This will also help you keep better track of their screen time and what they may be doing while online.
- Encourage exercise and other activities in place of digital entertainment, especially during the day. Exposure to daylight and use of energy will help train your children’s sleep-wake cycle, as well as use up extra energy that may be available to keep them awake at night.
- Talk to your children, especially teenagers, about the benefits of good sleep, and set the example. If they are sporty, explain how it will impact their performance, if academic: how their grades are suffering, or if social: how good sleep helps them look healthy and attractive.
Sleep is extremely important to your child’s mental and physical health. Through following these techniques you and your children will have better quality sleep, and as a result, a better quality of life.