Even before the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, parents were grappling with the effects of screen time on their children’s sleep habits. Now, with so much of the world moving online, kids’ screen time has increased drastically, and many old routines are out the window.
Experts agree that proper rest is essential for children of all ages, and unhealthy digital habits that develop now will only be harder to break in the future. With that in mind, Children and Screens: Institute of Digital Media and Child Development has brought together the leading researchers, clinicians, and experts to provide parents with these useful tips for helping kids get the sleep they need.
1. Create a no-phone zone.
Parents who bring their phones into the bedroom are more likely to have children who bring their phones into the bedroom. In order to wake up feeling more fully rested and recharged, Dr. Wendy Troxel, senior behavioral and social scientist, RAND Corporation,
recommends that families have a central place to put all phones away about an hour before bedtime.
“To get started, it may be helpful to set an alarm on your device to indicate when it’s time to disconnect, and some may even want to keep that central charging place under lock and key,” Troxel says.
2. Log off and nod off.
Avoiding screens in the hour before bedtime will help facilitate sleep onset and provide better quality sleep at night says Dr. Jean-Philippe Chaput, Research Scientist, CHEO Research Institute, Ottawa, Canada.
“Other important sleep hygiene tips include setting a regular bedtime, following consistent routines (e.g., bathing, brushing teeth, reading),” Chaput adds.
3. Control light exposure.
Be strategic about when your child is exposed to screens and other light sources throughout the day, recommends Sarah Morsbach Honaker, PhD, DBSM, Indiana University School of Medicine.
“Morning light can increase, advance or entrain your child’s circadian sleep rhythm (internal sleep clock), making him or her feel more alert in the morning and more tired at bedtime,” Honaker explains. “Evening light, on the other hand, can inhibit the release of melatonin, a hormone that prepares us for sleep. When possible, concentrate screen use for e-learning earlier in the day, keep the blinds open, and get outside early and often.”
4. Look to the books.
Parents don’t really need reminder how much better kids do on some kind of schedule — the payoff in their behavior and your sanity is priceless. But, have you ever considered establishing some sort of reading routine with your child, asks Kim West, LCSW-C, aka the Sleep Lady.
“Not only can reading replace screen time, it’s a great and calm way to connect with children,” West says. “Even if it’s just for 10-15 minutes a night, a reading routine can benefit children’s brain development, and it will create memories your kids will cherish forever.”
5. Get (it) out of bed.
Nicole Beurkens, PhD, Horizons Developmental Resource Center, recommends keeping the bedroom, and especially your child’s bed, as a device-free zone.
“Don’t use devices in bed during the day, as we want the brain to associate that environment with sleep,” Beurkens says. “With kids home most of the time now due to the pandemic, it can be easier to slip into habits of lying in bed and using devices during the daytime hours, but this can make it more challenging to fall asleep in that environment at night. Keeping devices out of the bedroom will help the brain follow more consistent routines and sleep habits.”
6. Power down early.
The later we stay up using devices, the less time we have for sleep. In addition, using screens in the evening can make it harder to fall asleep due to psychological emotional, or physical arousal, according to Mary A. Carskadon, PhD, professor of psychiatry and human behavior, Alpert Medical School of Brown University, EP Bradley Hospital Sleep Research Lab.
“Time spent in front of screens — if long enough, bright enough and late enough in the evening — can also push our daily timing system back, which makes falling asleep even more difficult,” Carskadon says. “For a restful night, reduce the amount and intensity of evening screen time, and have a solid plan for your child’s sleep schedule.”
7. Avoid exposure to stressful content.
Avoid anxiety-provoking media, especially later in the day, Beurkens advises.
“When children consume content that’s emotionally overstimulating, such as a scary video or news story, it can lead to difficulties with sleep at night,” she says. “Kids can fixate on those scary images or stories when they lie down to sleep, and being alone in the dark can exacerbate their fears.”
Beurkens recommends using parental controls to help limit your children’s exposure to distressing content. “And remember to be aware of any content you’re consuming that your kids might be able to see or hear, as well,” she says.
8. Establish a routine.
Virtually all material delivered on screens is designed to keep us engaged and watching, but it’s important to make sure kids get a full night’s sleep for their physical, mental and emotional development, notes Daniel Lewin, PhD, associate director of the Pediatric Sleep Medicine and director of the Pulmonary Behavioral Medicine Program at Children’s National. He says that children ages 2-9 require 10.5-12 hours per night, while young teens should get 9-10 hours, and older teens need 8.5-9.5 hours.
“Effective techniques for making sure your kids get enough rest include establishing a regular bedtime routine, modeling healthy examples of screen use, making the bedroom a screen-free zone and requiring them to shut down all electronics an hour before bedtime (30 minutes can work for children over 13),” Lewin says. “If your teen must be on a screen at night for homework, use a blue light blocker app.”
9. Model the message.
With the whole family at home, kids are extra aware of adults’ daily habits.
“Teens and tweens are wired to look for unfairness, and they definitely notice when adults are watching shows late at night, using email or social media from bed or keeping an irregular sleep schedule now that there isn’t a morning commute,” says Michelle M. Garrison, PhD, associate professor, University of Washington School of Public Health, School of Medicine, and Seattle Children’s Research Institute.
Garrison suggests making a commitment as a whole family to put media devices down 30 minutes before bedtime and keeping regular sleep and wake times.
“Come up with creative ways to hold each other accountable, like using a tracking log, screen time features and apps, or a Fitbit,” she says.
10. Take charge of your ‘charge.’
Charge your devices outside of the bedroom, says Lauren Hale, PhD, founding editor-in-chief of Sleep Health, and professor of family, population and preventive Medicine at the Program in Public Health, Renaissance School of Medicine, Stony Brook University.
“You don’t need access to them in the middle of the night or to wake up. In fact, you can buy a nice digital alarm clock for less than $20,” Hale says.
11. Keep devices away.
It’s important to make children’s bedrooms screen-free to ensure they get sufficient and quality sleep. However, for children with greater autonomy over their smartphone usage, it may be tricky for parents to maintain this screen-free zone, acknowledges Michael O. Mireku, PhD, MPH, University of Lincoln, School of Psychology.
“Ask your child to keep away from the smartphone or tablet once you put out the light,” Mireku recommends. “Where this is not possible, ask children to keep the bedside lamp on if they are using their phone in bed. Emerging evidence appears to show that children have insufficient and poor sleep when they use phones in darkness during bedtime.”
Proper rest is vital to the development of children’s brains and bodies, and it’s up to parents to both establish healthy habits and to demonstrate those habits themselves. Without a doubt, COVID-19 presents new challenges to maintaining routines and limiting screen use, but the good news is that following the tips included in this newsletter will benefit not just children, but parents, as well. And who couldn’t use a better night’s sleep?