Are your kids getting enough sleep?

By on 03-08-2021

How digital devices harm your child’s sleep and health, and 4 easy tips for creating better sleep habits

It’s no secret that getting a good night’s sleep is one of the best things we can do for our brains and bodies. However, the American Academy of Pediatrics estimates that up to 50% of children and 40% of teens suffer from some type of sleep problem, while the CDC estimates that up to 73% of teens don’t get enough sleep, period! When children don’t get the sleep they need, all types of problems can arise that range from depression, inattention, and behavior to memory and learning deficits. On the other hand, getting the right amount of good quality sleep each night helps avoid all those negatives while boosting our child’s mood and energy the following day. 

Sleep is especially important for kids and teens because their brains are still developing. Poor sleep during childhood has been linked to increased risk of ADHD, poor academic outcomes, behavior disorders, and more. Plus, sleep is essential for avoiding many physical health issues including obesity, poor growth, and diabetes. With so many mental and physical aspects of our kids’ health riding on a good night’s sleep, it’s critical to get them in bed on time and sleeping well throughout the night.

How much sleep do kids need?

How much sleep kids need depends on their age. The CDC recommends the following total hours of sleep per day:

  • Newborns: 14-17 hours
  • Infants: 12-16 hours
  • Toddlers: 11-14 hours
  • Pre-schoolers: 10-13 hours
  • School-age kids: 9-12 hours
  • Teens: 8-10 hours
  • Adults: 7+

Why is it that so many kids and teens don’t get enough sleep?

Although there are many factors that contribute to poor sleep, one of the most prevalent and damaging is the use of electronics. Excessive screen time can quickly and easily damage the quality of the sleep by a large margin, not to mention the temptation to watch one more TV show or scroll one more social media feed instead of getting an adequate amount of sleep. For kids in particular, that temptation can be really hard to resist. This means that at the most basic level, electronics get in the way of your kids’ sleep because they enjoy using them and have a hard time stopping their use to prioritize something else. 

Blue light

Unfortunately, screen time doesn’t just reduce the quantity of sleep your kids get. Electronic devices emit blue light, which disturbs melatonin levels causes the brain to think that it is still daytime. The brain should begin producing neurotransmitters like melatonin when it becomes dark outside as part of your body’s internal clock, but electronics use prevents this from happening. As a result, kids who frequently use their phones, tablets, or TVs before bed are setting themselves up for failure even if they get to bed at a proper time. 

Overstimulation

Aside from blue light, electronics also tend to overstimulate the brain. Whether it be an intense movie, emotionally stimulating interaction on SnapChat, or a fast-paced video game, kids’ brains are significantly more active during and after online activities than they would be otherwise. This can be very detrimental to their sleep, as their brain is nowhere near ready for them to settle down and rest when it is so active. 

Uninterrupted sleep

Another important aspect of a good night’s sleep is getting the recommended length of uninterrupted sleep. For teens in particular, smartphones and tablets pose a constant threat to their sleep due to repeated notifications. The most common forms of interruption are these notifications from social media, games, or messaging apps. However, it is also common for kids to wake up in the middle of the night to use the bathroom only to go back to their phones or video games before returning to sleep. All of these distractions can be severely damaging to their quality of sleep, let alone the quantity they miss out on. 

Virtual learning

As if all of the previous problems with electronics weren’t enough, we now live in the era of virtual learning for 7 hours a day, 5 days a week. Our kids have no choice but to attend their classes on the computer every day, causing a wide range of issues including eye strain, lack of physical activity, and more. If screen time isn’t properly managed outside of class time, virtual learning can significantly increase the negative effects that our kids’ devices already have on their sleep. 

How can I help my child sleep better?

Luckily, there are several easy ways to ensure that your kids can both stay connected with their peers through an appropriate amount of device usage and get enough good quality sleep every night. 

4 tips to help your child sleep better in our digital world:

  1. Keep devices out of the bedroom at night.
    One of the easiest things you can do to mitigate many of the threats posed by electronics is to create a rule that electronics cannot be left in your kids’ rooms at night. This removes the temptation to play another game or scroll through social media instead of sleeping, and reduces the chance that a notification, call, or alert will wake them up during the night. Enforcing this rule also supports safety for children, as many things happening on the internet in the middle of the night can pose a risk to them. The Qustodio app is what I use and recommend at my clinic to help parents set limits on use during the day and night, and to help ensure that children aren’t able to access sleep-damaging screen time when they should be sound asleep.
  2. Don’t use devices in bed during the day.
    During the day it’s beneficial to make your child’s bed a “device-free zone”. This helps train the brain to understand that your bed is for sleeping! When we lay in bed and scroll through social media during the day, we are telling our brains that sleeping isn’t our primary goal when we lay in bed. This is another super easy way to start reclaiming those hours of our sleep that are lost when we just can’t seem to fall asleep. 
  3. Get enough physical activity or movement during the day.
    Being active during the day is one of the best ways to set children up for a restful night of sleep. When they physically move and exert energy throughout the daytime, they are more tired come nighttime and can fall asleep and stay asleep more easily.
  4. Avoid screens 1 hour before bed
    In order to decrease the effects of blue light and overstimulation, it’s important to set aside devices for at least an hour before we go to sleep. Making sure you and your kids follow this guideline will help them to calm down, and allow their brains produce the melatonin needed to sleep more effectively.

Sleep is important to everyone, and in an era of almost constant electronic use it’s more important than ever that we take the right steps to help our children manage their devices in ways that allow them to get good quality sleep every night. While these tips are a fantastic starting point, for some families it may be useful to go further by implementing stricter rules or monitoring screen time more closely. For this type of intervention, Qustodio is a simple and effective option parents can use to help ensure kids are appropriately using their electronics during the day – and night. Start implementing these tips right away, and see what benefits you and your kids experience come bedtime.

Dr. Nicole Beurkens

Nicole Beurkens, PhD, is a licensed Clinical Psychologist and Board Certified Nutritionist specializing in the evaluation and treatment of children with serious developmental and mental health conditions. She has successfully treated over 1,000 children and families during her 20 years in practice using nutrition, lifestyle, and mental health techniques.

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