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5 ways you can help your kids balance screen time with healthy sleep

Steven John , Business Insider US
 Mar 10, 2019, 07:44 PM
(Getty Images)

  • Chronic lack of sleep can have multiple negative effects on a young person's wellness, including poorer performance at school, impaired physical development, and mental health issues.
  • Nearly 50% of American children are not getting enough sleep these days despite broad understanding of the importance of rest.
  • One of the leading causes of sleep deprivation among children and teens is the use of technology with screens.


Kids are not getting enough sleep these days. Neither are adults, but that's our own fault - we're the adults. Of the many culprits behind youth sleep deprivation, including a glut of homework, a schedule overloaded with extracurricular activities, and an irregular bedtime routine, in recent years the expanded use of technology has become a serious impediment to healthy sleep habits.

And chronic lack of sleep can have a major and decidedly negative effect on a child's mood, performance at school, physical development, and even mental health. Tired kids are cranky and prone to whining, they are less focused in class, they are more likely to become overweight, and they are more likely to engage in risky behaviour and even to develop suicidal tendencies.

Simply put, missing out on proper sleep at night isn't just a problem for the day that follows, but rather for the lifetime made up of all those many days. And one surefire way to miss out on sleep is to stare at a screen shortly before bedtime; not only does screen time delay bedding down, but the blue light emitted by screens inhibits production of melatonin, the hormone that naturally aids sleep.

According to the Journal of Pediatrics, more than 75% of American kids now have some form of screen-based technology in their bedroom, be it a TV, tablet, computer, gaming system, phone, or a combination of multiple devices. And only about 37% of kids regularly meet expert recommended limits for daily screen time. This surging and improper use of tech is one of the major reasons that approximately 50% of America's youth are chronically sleep deprived, according to the Journal of Pediatrics.

Dr. Whitney Roban, clinical psychologist, American Sleep Association advisory board member, and family sleep specialist, literally wrote the book about healthy sleep for kids. Actually, she's written two books on the topic at present, and she has helped thousands of families across the country establish healthier, sustainable sleep habits that balance limited use of technology with respect for a child's wants and needs.

Unlike most books written to help families deal with the many challenges everyday life presents, Dr. Roban's books are not written for parents, but for children. They are picture books with simple, rhyming text that convey an important message to their young readers: sufficient sleep truly is essential for every aspect of one's waking life, from success in school and sports, from enjoying time with friends and family, for good health and physical development, and for happiness itself.

By speaking directly to children and helping them understand the importance of sleep, Dr. Roban's books help kids take ownership of their sleep habits, thereby reducing the burden parents bear in the bedtime struggles. When kids innately understand that they need enough sleep rather than simply being told as much by a parent, they are less likely to push back against screen time ending well before bedtime or, more broadly speaking, against bedtime itself.

Once you and your kids are in general agreement that limited technology use, a regular bedtime, and sufficient nightly sleep are critical for the proper functioning of the household, you can follow these tips to help establish a routine that allows for a healthy balance between technology and rest.

1. Establish a technology cut-off time

For physiological reasons (melatonin production, e.g.), screen time should end at least one hour before bedtime, according to the National Sleep Foundation. Ending tech time well before bedtime also allows for a smoother evening routine, and when there is a hard and fast cutoff time, kids won't engage in a battle of attrition: "Just ten more minutes! OK just five? OK just two!"

If your children have trouble sticking to the cutoff time, you can, ironically use technology to your advantage. You can use device and Wi-Fi management hardware like the Gryphon Wi-Fi Parental Control Router to block internet access to certain devices (or to temporarily shut down the Wi-Fi household wide) and to track device usage, controlling and monitoring your kids use of technology. (Circle also makes such a device that offers fewer security features than the Gryphon, but that does have a handy bedtime feature that works with your cutoff plan.)

2. Remove technology from the bedroom

If you can't count on your kids to turn off their phones, close their computers, and switch off the TV after cutoff time (or you think they might be powering them back up in the middle of the night), then simply remove the tech from the bedroom.

Young people are still working on developing their self-regulation abilities, so it's understandable that they have trouble with rules. You'll be doing them a favour, not punishing them, by keeping that technological temptation out of arm's reach.

3. Make sure homework, chores, and family time come first

Within reasonable limits, screen time is no big deal for kids and can even have many positives, from helping them unwind while gaming, learn from watching or reading educational, and establishing and strengthening interpersonal relationships via chat, snaps, and various social platforms.

But before the games, YouTube, or Insta has to come the homework, the clean room, the actual face time, and so on. Screen time should be treated as a privilege, not a given.

4. Establish a solid bedtime routine

All human beings thrive on routine; for youngsters still working to figure out how the world works, routine is imperative. Establish and then stick to a nightly bedtime routine; for younger kids, it will be a hands-on affair for the parents as well, with bathing, brushing, pajamas, and the rest of it a shared process.

For older kids and teens, clearly explain each goal the child must complete himself or herself (consider writing out an actual checklist) and until the routine is locked in over time, check in to make sure each goal is being met.

5. Make your kids part of the process

As Dr. Roban wrote in an email, when you teach children why sleep is so important, the negative consequence of sleep deprivation, and about "how much sleep they actually need," they will be less prone to seeing limited screen time and established sleep habits in an adversarial light.

As you establish bedtime routines, do so with your kids, not for them. You're in charge, of course, but by respecting your child as a person rather than bossing the kid around like a subservient you will create the best possible scenario for the best possible sleep.

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