Screens Diminish Children’s Sleep Quality

Encourage children to wind down with a predictable routine prior to bedtime

By Deborah Jeanne Sergeant

While you may feel you readily wind down in the evening by watching television—and perhaps fall asleep while binging watching a favorite show—it is not the ideal way to induce sleep, especially for children.

As an additional drawback of too much screen time, watching videos or playing games just before bedtime can inhibit children’s sleep.

Screen time may not delay children’s bedtime; however, a study from The National Sleep Foundation indicates that people who use devices with screens just before bed experience poorer sleep quality than those who did not use the devices.

“Research shows that screen time before bed stimulates the brain and wakens it up,” said Megan Campbell, osteopathic doctor and pediatrician with Madison Irving Pediatrics in Syracuse. “Your body is not preparing to go to sleep.”

The artificial light of screen devices—particularly in an otherwise dark environment before bedtime—can hamper sleep because it delays the body’s production of melatonin, the hormone that induces sleep. Minimizing light closer to bedtime signals the body that it is time for rest.

The device’s stimulation can also maintain wakefulness. Allowing children to keep devices in their rooms is inadvisable. While your children may say that they stay off their phones or tablets at bedtime and keep them away from their beds; that may not be enough. Not only is the temptation strong to check for messages “one more time,” but just the presence of the phone in the room may be detrimental to good sleep. Children wonder who has liked their post or responded to their text. Stressing over likes and posted comments can certainly make it difficult to sleep.

“What we’re seeing in our practice is kids are on their phone all night long,” Campbell said. “They’re getting constant notifications that someone liked something on TikTok or text messages. Some kids stay awake until three in the morning listening to dings and notifications.”

She recommends limiting screen time during the period of one to two hours before going to sleep and giving up the devices to parents before bedtime.

While up to two hours or so of screen time each day is fine, excessive screen time prevents children from interacting with people in person. Those interactions are important for understanding how to get along with others.

Physician Steven Blatt, SUNY Upstate professor of pediatrics, and director and medical director of the general pediatric division, said that the screen time necessitated by schooling at home has caused children to far exceed that recommendation.

“They’re on the screen for school,” Blatt said. “They’re told to be. It makes the issue impossible to address.”

He added that excessive screen time eats into time children could use to become more active in their day. Too little exercise can also hamper sleep; however, timing is important. While physical activity is vital for good health, vigorous activity directly before bed can elevate body temperature and energize children rather than cause them to settle. It is better to exercise earlier in the day.

Blatt believes in bedtime routines that help children wind down, not more screen time. Encourage children to prepare for sleep with reading time, talking about the day that has passed and the day to come. If your kids are showing signs of sleep disorders, you may need to bring them to a sleep center.