The effects of night time screentime use on a child’s brain


By Samantha Kent

Our everyday lives are full of technology that, on one hand, enhances and simplifies everything from buying laundry detergent to managing the family schedule. However, on the other hand, heavy screen use has unintended side effects, which are often magnified in children because of their developing minds and bodies. Smartphones, whether they are being used for games or communicating with friends, have the potential to disrupt your child’s sleep cycle.

Regulating the Sleep Cycle and How Smartphones Interfere

The problems start with light. After sunlight filters through the Earth’s atmosphere, it’s categorized as blue spectrum light. Special photoreceptors in the eyes called ganglion cells absorb blue light and send signals directly to the circadian region of the brain. The circadian rhythms regulate everything from your sleep-wake cycle to feeding times and cell energy levels. Anything that alters exposure to blue light has the potential to interfere with the sleep-wake cycle.

Effects of Phone Use Before Bed

Smartphone screens and those of many other electronic devices, including televisions and laptops, emit a blue light that’s similar enough to sunlight that they can suppress sleep hormones. Consequently, a child that uses a smartphone right before bed may not feel sleepy for hours after the phone has been shut off.

But, it’s not just smartphone use that affects sleep; it’s the access to it as well. Even when a child isn’t using the device, the potential for access can cause wakefulness and shorten sleep times. Studies have shown that children who use any kind of electronic/media devices before bed sleep less, experience more daytime sleepiness, and have poorer sleep quality.

Though it might be easy to dismiss or ignore the effects of sleep deprivation once in a while, if it becomes chronic, it can hurt a child’s social, emotional, and academic success.

Improving Your Child’s Sleep Health

Luckily, better sleep habits and smartphone management can improve sleep in a matter of days. School-age children need anywhere from eight to twelve hours of sleep, depending on age and activity level. To achieve those numbers, you can try:

  • Setting a Phone/Electronics Curfew

Smartphone use isn’t inherently bad, but you’ll need to keep an eye on it in the evening. An electronics curfew that’s set two to three hours before bedtime allows the circadian rhythms to function normally and follow natural daylight patterns.

  • Creating a Sleep-Enhancing Bedroom

Children who are accustomed to using devices right before bed may have a hard time settling down when you’re first making the transition. You can help by creating a sleep-enhancing bedroom environment. A mattress that keeps your child at a comfortable temperature and supports his weight and preferred sleep position is a good start. You can also keep distractions to a minimum by blocking out light and noise. Your child’s body temperature drops a few degrees at the onset of sleep so a cooler room temperature between 15 to 20 degrees is typically more comfortable.

  • Setting a Bedtime AND Using a Bedtime Routine

The human body loves predictability. A consistent bedtime helps your child’s brain recognize when to start the sleep-wake cycle. You can further support bedtime by creating a relaxing bedtime routine that includes anything from reading a book to taking a warm bath. As long as the activity helps your child relax, it works in a bedtime routine. Try to start the routine at the same time each night and perform the activities in the same order for the best results.

The development of new habits takes time. It may take days or a few weeks for a child to become accustomed to limited smartphone use before bed. But in the end, it will set him up a lifetime’s worth of sleep success.

Samantha Kent is a researcher for Her favourite writing topic is how getting enough sleep can improve your life. Currently residing in Boise, Idaho, she sleeps in a California King bed, often with a cat on her face.

Peninsula Kids – Autumn 2019


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