by Dr Caroline Hendry (PhD Developmental Biology)
There are quite a few studies that report a link between screen watching and subsequent sleep patterns in children and teens2,3,4,5. The consistent conclusion from these studies is that watching a screen prior to sleep, whether it be TV, computer or any other type of screen can be bad for sleep. It may mean that the amount of sleep is less, and/or it might take longer to fall asleep. Importantly, if this occurs often enough, it may lead to increasing feelings up tiredness for months, or even years.
A recent study conducted by Australian and New Zealand researchers has added to this topic by investigating the activities of children and teens in the 90 minutes before bed, and then looking at the time it takes them to fall asleep1.
The study involved just over 2000 children and teens, aged from five to eighteen years old, with an average age of 11 ½ years. The activities of the participants in the 90 minutes prior to bed were grouped into screen watching (TV, computer games etc), non-screen watching (reading, listening to music etc), or active self-care (brushing teeth, showering, getting ready for bed).
It was found that falling to sleep relatively quickly was associated with less screen watching time in the 90 minutes before bed. Of course, the opposite was also true: taking longer to fall asleep was associated with more screen time.
So what’s going on?
TV (and other screen) watching is thought to affect us in several different ways. Firstly, as adults, we are more likely to lose track of time watching TV, or we may succumb to the old “when the show finishes” trick and end up letting our children stay up much later than we intended. This effect is more likely to occur when a TV or computer is placed within the bedroom, as this is associated with increased screen watching and sleep disturbances in children6,7.
Secondly, most screens emit a type of blue light, which has been shown to decrease levels of melatonin in children8. Melatonin is a naturally occurring compound in the body that is extremely important for our sleep clock, helping to ease us from being awake and alert into sleepiness9.
Finally, the actual program or game that we are watching may leave us feeling excited, scared or anxious. This is particularly true of thriller or action-based media.
What are the implications of this study?
This study specifically links the time it takes to fall asleep with what children are doing in the 90 minutes prior to bed. Not surprisingly, TV is the number one culprit for sleep delay. This study supports previous studies showing that screen watching (especially TV) in children and teens can have negative consequences for sleep. Taken together, these studies suggest that developing a routine that does not involve any screen time in the period prior to bed may help to get your children off the sleep more easily.
1. Presleep activities and time of sleep onset in children. (2013) Foley LS, Maddison R, Jiang Y, Marsh S, Olds T, Ridley K. Pediatrics. 131:276-82
2. Sleep duration and its correlates in a sample of Saudi elementary school children. (2006) BaHammam A, Bin Saeed A, Al-Faris E, Shaikh S. Singapore Med J. 47:875-81.
3. Television viewing, computer game playing, and Internet use and self-reported time to bed and time out of bed in secondary-school children. (2004) Van den Bulck J. Sleep. 27:101-4.
4. Olds, T., Ridley, K., Blunden, S. (2009) The hours before bedtime: do screens keep young people awake? J Sci Med Sport 12 (suppl 2):e183.
5. Adolescent use of mobile phones for calling and for sending text messages after lights out: results from a prospective cohort study with a one-year follow-up. (2007) Van den Bulck J.Sleep. 30:1220-3.
6. Television, video, and computer game usage in children under 11 years of age. (2004) Christakis DA, Ebel BE, Rivara FP, Zimmerman FJ. J Pediatr. 145:652-6.
7. Television-viewing habits and sleep disturbance in school children. (1999) Owens J, Maxim R, McGuinn M, Nobile C, Msall M, Alario A. Pediatrics. 104:e27.
8. Age-dependent association of exposure to television screen with children's urinary melatonin excretion? (2006) Salti R, Tarquini R, Stagi S, Perfetto F, Cornélissen G, Laffi G, Mazzoccoli G, Halberg F. Neuro Endocrinol Lett. 27:73-80.
9. Melatonin: role in gating nocturnal rise in sleep propensity.Lavie P. (1997) J Biol Rhythms. 12:657-65.
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