Electronic Media Devices Bad for Children’s Sleep

Health Letter, September 2015

By Azza AbuDagga, M.H.A., Ph.D.

electronic media device
Image: Noam Armonn/Shutterstock.com

Sleep has become a precious commodity in today’s world. The National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute (NHLBI) reports that up to 70 million U.S. adults have chronic sleep loss or sleep disorders.[1] In addition, a recent survey shows that nearly 60 percent of American adolescents are not getting the recommended number of hours of sleep for their age.[2]

One staggering trend contributing to our nationwide sleep deprivation is the pervasive use of electronic media devices that have extended beyond large screens (such as TVs and computers) to include a growing variety of small screens (such as smartphones, tablets and hand-held video game consoles), even in bedrooms. It is estimated that nearly 90 percent of adults and 75 percent of children have at least one electronic device in their bedrooms at night.[3]

Despite the fact that many people use electronic devices in bed as a means of unwinding to help them fall asleep, a recent study found that electronic devices in children’s bedrooms actually lead to less sleep.[4] The study was conducted by U.S. and German researchers and was published in the February issue of the journal Pediatrics.

Small screens are of particular concern to sleep experts because they provide access to a wide range of content — games, videos, websites and messages — that can be accessed in bed, potentially preventing or delaying sleep. These devices also may send audible notifications of incoming messages, possibly disrupting sleep.

Why do we need sleep?

Decades of research has shown that sleep is not just downtime when our brains shut off and our bodies rest. Sleep has numerous health and well-being benefits.[5] A number of critical tasks carried out during sleep help us stay healthy and function at our best. Without enough sleep, we cannot focus or respond quickly. Therefore, sleep problems can affect all aspects of our lives — including health, work productivity and personal relationships.

Sleep is particularly critical for infants and young children because they need many hours of sleep each day in order to develop and function properly. Public officials recommend 14 to 17 hours of sleep for newborn babies, with the number declining to eight to 10 hours each day among school-aged children.[6] (See table for more sleep recommendations for several age groups).

The NHLBI characterizes the widespread belief that people can get by on as little as six hours a day as a myth.[7] If you routinely lose sleep or choose to sleep less than the number of hours necessary for good health, your lost sleep (or sleep debt) adds up. For example, if you lose two hours of sleep each day, you will have a sleep debt of 14 hours over a week.

Chronic sleep loss increases the risk of hypertension, obesity, diabetes, cardiovascular disease (such as heart attack and stroke) and depression.[8] However, these conditions appear to develop slowly over months and years of chronic sleep problems.

Overall, sleep loss is believed to account for $16 billion in direct medical costs (such as doctor visits, hospital services and prescriptions) each year.[9] Sleep loss has been implicated in more than 80,000 motor vehicle crashes with more than 1,000 related deaths every year,[10] and has even been linked to national disasters, such as the explosion of the space shuttle Challenger.[11]

Recommended Amount of Sleep [12],[13]

Age group Recommended amount of
sleep per day
Newborns (from 0 to 3 months) 14 to 17 hours
Infants (from 4 to 11 months) 12 to 15 hours
Toddlers (from 1 to 2 years) 11 to 14 hours
Preschool-aged children (from 3 to 5 years) 10 to 13 hours
School-aged children (from 6 to 13 years) 9 to 11 hours
Teens (from 14 to 17 years) 8 to 10 hours
Adults (from 18 to 64 years) 7 to 9 hours
Older adults (65 years and over) 7 to 8 hours

New Pediatrics study on bedroom electronic devices and sleep

The study, the Massachusetts Childhood Obesity Research Demonstration, was a survey of a diverse sample of more than 2,000 fourth- and seventh-grade students from nearly 30 public schools. The researchers collected the data from 2012 to 2013 and asked the children about the presence of electronic devices with screens — either small (such as cell phones, smartphones and iPods) or large (TVs) — in their bedrooms on school days over the previous week. To determine usual sleep duration, researchers also asked about the times children went to sleep and woke up. Finally, the researchers asked about the number of days in the previous week when children felt like they needed more sleep (as a proxy for the extent of their insufficient rest or sleep).

As expected, the researchers found that children who reported sleeping near electronic screens in general reported sleeping less than those who did not. Specifically, children who slept near a small screen reported about 21 fewer minutes of sleep per school day than those who did not. Similarly, children who slept in a room with a TV during the previous week reported 18 fewer minutes of sleep per school day than those who did not. Overall, going to bed with a small-screen device or having a TV in the bedroom was associated with a 37- and 31-minute delay in bedtime, respectively — which suggests that the loss of sleep is due to delaying sleep times.

The perception of insufficient rest or sleep was experienced by children who slept near a small screen but not by those who had only a TV in the room. This finding indicates small screens may be more detrimental to children’s sleep than larger media devices.

Setting healthy sleep habits

Given the evidence about the harmful effects of technological devices on sleep, it becomes clear that having a sleeping environment with no electronic devices is conducive to better sleep among children and, by extension, adults.

For better sleep at night, experts recommend “unplugging” by avoiding all electronic devices before going to bed. Parents should strictly enforce this recommendation to promote their children’s health and well-being. The NHLBI provides the following additional recommendations for getting a good night’s sleep:[14]

  • Stick to a sleep schedule — going to bed and waking up at the same time each day to establish a routine.
  • Try to exercise at least 30 minutes on most days, but no later than about two hours before bedtime.
  • Avoid caffeine, nicotine and alcoholic beverages before going to bed.
  • Avoid large meals and beverages late at night.
  • If possible, avoid medicines that delay or disrupt sleep.
  • Do not take naps after 3 p.m., because they make it harder to fall asleep at night.
  • Have 30 minutes of sunlight exposure every day, because it helps in regulating daily sleep patterns.
  • Do not lie in bed awake — if you cannot sleep, get up and do some relaxing activity until you feel sleepy.
  • Talk to your health care provider if you continue to have trouble sleeping.

References

[1] National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute. Your guide to healthy sleep. 2011. https://www.citizen.org/sites/default/files/healthy_sleep.pdf. Accessed July 30, 2015.

[2] National Sleep Foundation. 2011 Sleep in America Poll: Communications technology in the bedroom. 2011. https://www.citizen.org/sites/default/files/siap_2011_summary_of_findings.pdf. Accessed July 31, 2015.

[3] National Sleep Foundation. 2014 Sleep in America Poll: Sleep in the modern family. 2014. https://www.citizen.org/sites/default/files/2014-nsf-sleep-in-america-poll-summary-of-findings-final-_updated-3-26-14-.pdf. Accessed July 30, 2015.

[4] Falbe J, Davison KK, Franckle RL, et al. Sleep duration, restfulness, and screens in the sleep environment. Pediatrics. 2015;135(2):e367-e375.

[5] National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute. Your Guide to Healthy Sleep. 2011. NIH Publication 11-5271. https://www.citizen.org/sites/default/files/healthy_sleep.pdf. Accessed July 30, 2015.

[6] Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health and Human Development. How much sleep do I need? http://www.nichd.nih.gov/health/topics/sleep/conditioninfo/Pages/how-much.aspx. Accessed August 14, 2015.

[7] National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute. How much sleep is enough? http://www.nhlbi.nih.gov/health/health-topics/topics/sdd/howmuch. Accessed July 31, 2015.

[8] Institute of Medicine’s Committee on Sleep Medicine and Research. Sleep Disorders and Sleep Deprivation: An Unmet Public Health Problem. Washington, DC: National Academies Press; 2006.

[9] National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute. Your guide to healthy sleep. 2011. https://www.citizen.org/sites/default/files/healthy_sleep.pdf. Accessed July 30, 2015.

[10] National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. March 2011. Traffic safety facts: Drowsy driving. https://www.citizen.org/sites/default/files/811449_0.pdf. Accessed July 31, 2015.

[11] Institute of Medicine’s Committee on Sleep Medicine and Research. Sleep Disorders and Sleep Deprivation: An Unmet Public Health Problem. In: Washington, DC: National Academies Press; 2006.

[12] Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health and Human Development. How much sleep do I need? http://www.nichd.nih.gov/health/topics/sleep/conditioninfo/Pages/how-much.aspx. Accessed August 14, 2015.

[13] Hirshkowitz M, Whiton K, Albert SM, et al. National Sleep Foundation’s sleep time duration recommendations: methodology and results summary. Sleep Health. 2015;1(1):40-43. doi:10.1016/j.sleh.2014.12.010.

[14] National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute. Your guide to healthy sleep. 2011. https://www.citizen.org/sites/default/files/healthy_sleep.pdf. Accessed July 30, 2015.

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