Understanding the Relationship Between Screen Time and Sleep
The struggle to keep our eyes off screens before bedtime is real for everyone — adults and kids alike. At some point, we all realized that an evening scroll through our phones was quite enjoyable, or that watching TV before bed was a great way to unwind. But the cold hard truth is that screen time can actually have negative impacts on our sleep and well-being.
It's no secret that we're spending more time than ever looking at screens, and children are no exception. In fact, one study showed that as many as 96% of teenagers bring some type of electronic device into the bedroom with them.
As technology becomes more ingrained in our daily lives, it’s important to set healthy boundaries that improve your and your children’s well beings.
Keep reading as we take a deep dive into the relationship between screen time and sleep for your children. Plus, we’ll share some ways to handle screens and digital devices around bedtime.
What is considered ‘screen time’?
How your kid spends their screen time before bed can come in all shapes and sizes. But essentially, anything they are doing that involves a screen is what we’re talking about. The actual activity they are doing on these screens is less important to this conversation than the amount of time they are on their devices. But to break it down, there are about four agreed-upon categories of types of screen time.
Interactive consumption and exposure to screen time generally refer to any activity where your child needs to actively engage with the device. Some common examples of interactive consumption include playing video games or browsing the internet.
Passive consumption is when your child uses a device for something that doesn’t require them to participate in the activity. This includes things like watching a movie, watching TV, or even reading a digital book.
Social screen time includes anything where a screen device is used to communicate with others, whether it’s friends, family, or other people in their lives.
This ones quite prevalent among kids and teens — not only is it a form of entertainment but it’s also how they connect with their peers and build relationships.
Finally, there’s educational consumption. This can include things like studying, learning a new skill, or completing schoolwork.
It goes without saying that screen time is not always a bad thing, and lots of us benefit from it — if we use it responsibly during the day. But the general rule of thumb is that the fewer screens at bedtime, the better! Now let’s find out why!
Why do kids tend to enjoy screen time before bed?
There are probably tons of reasons why kids (or anyone) enjoy screen time before bed. But here are just a few.
To start us off: the scientific reason. Screen time activities that children tend to enjoy will release something called dopamine in the brain. Dopamine is a natural chemical that can actually provide a lot of benefits to children and adults. It can make you feel more alert or even more motivated. But the more kids are exposed to things like social media and digital technology, the more they crave higher levels of dopamine. This cycle is what makes people ‘addicted’ to their phones and devices.
Another reason is imitation. Children tend to mimic the actions of their parents. So if you have a habit of scrolling on your phone or watching TV before bed, there’s a good chance your kids have picked up on that habit as well.
Finally, the obvious reason. Most of the time, screen time is just relaxing. After a long day of school, sports, clubs, friends, family time, and more, sometimes scrolling on social media or watching a favorite show is the easiest way to unwind. But of course, this way of unwinding comes at a cost, which we’ll take a look at now.
What are the consequences of screen time on sleep?
So now that we know the what and why, let’s talk about the how. How exactly is screen time before bed a bad thing?
First and foremost — screen time can cause kids to lose sleep.
The constant stimulation of social media, video games, and other electronics can overstimulate the brain. And while stimulation for the brain is healthy, it is definitely not what the doctor ordered at bedtime. Essentially, it tricks children into feeling less tired than they actually are. As a result, they stay up for hours longer than they would otherwise and lose the rest their body desperately needs.
More than one in three American children do not get the recommended amount of sleep — but this is no surprise, given how many children spend time on their screens and electronic devices right before bed. It significantly impacts your kids’ ability to wind down at the end of the night.
And like a domino effect, sleep deprivation brings on its own set of consequences.
For one, it can lead to poorer academic performance. This is because sleep plays an important role in memory and concentration. In general, exhausted kids don’t tend to pay attention or retain information well in the classroom. Additionally, sleep deprivation can cause behavioral problems. Children who are tired are more likely to be irritable and impulsive. They may also have trouble regulating their emotions. Even more worrisome, many studies have shown a link between suicidal thoughts and actions with insufficient levels of sleep among teenagers.
Disturbs the circadian rhythm
Circadian rhythms are your body's natural 24-hour sleep-wake cycle. It’s controlled by a biological clock in the brain and outside light. Children and adults are all meant to feel sleepier at night when it’s dark.
So when your child is staring at their bright, blue-light tablet at 10 pm, it makes it hard for their brain to realize it’s nighttime and that’s time to go to sleep. Once that natural rhythm gets offbeat, the result is more difficulty falling asleep and staying asleep. This is true of other blue lights, which is why many experts recommend dimming the lights in your home towards the end of the day. However, screens are one of the biggest culprits.
The other result of a disrupted circadian rhythm is that oftentimes it’s more difficult to feel properly energized and wake up in the morning — which makes getting the kids up for school a bigger battle than it already is.
After a while, screen time before bed can start to have more long-term effects. Your kid might experience insomnia, or the prolonged inability to fall asleep and/or stay asleep. Typically this means multiple times a week they are having this problem.
Studies have found that the light from electronic devices is linked to insomnia and here’s how it works: the blue light from screens can suppress the production of melatonin, the hormone that makes us feel sleepy. Constant screen use, even during the day, can push back the body’s natural ‘sleep time’ making it difficult to fall asleep.
While insomnia and other sleep disorders can have many contributing factors, it’s clear that screens before bed can perpetuate the issue.
How to reduce screen time in your child’s bedtime routine
So now that we know the scary truth of screen time before bed, let’s discuss some helpful tips to get your kids to turn off all their devices.
Remember that every family will have a different plan of attack that works for them. And no one expects a perfect nighttime routine on your first try (Rome wasn’t built in a day!). But as long as you make a solid effort, your family will surely see the benefit.
So without further ado, here are some ways to encourage a screen-free bedtime routine for your household!
Lead by example
Kids learn most behaviors from their parents. One of the best ways to encourage a device-free nighttime routine is to lead by example.
Now, that might sound like a tall order — parents like to unwind with a little TV too sometimes! But making it a family goal to stay off screens before bed might just be the strategy that works best. And not only will your children get better sleep, but you also will too!
Keep devices out of the bedroom
Easier said than done, but if you don’t have screens in the bedroom, you can’t spend time looking at them! The temptation to reach over for the phone or remote while in bed will eventually go away, it just takes time.
Implementing this will look different for every family. Maybe this means not installing TVs or game consoles in any bedroom. Or maybe your family will set a rule that all phones, remotes, tablets, etc. will be kept in a designated area of the house from evening until morning.
Set appropriate bedtimes
One way to reduce screen time in the evening is by simply choosing an appropriate bedtime. Teenagers need 8 to 10 hours of sleep a night, and younger children need even more.
So make sure to set a bedtime that makes sense with when they need to wake up for school or extra-curricular activities.
If you set a bedtime that’s too late, they won't get enough sleep. Too early? They won't be tired and will be more tempted to bring devices into the bedroom to kill the time. It’s all about finding the right balance.
And the other crucial part of this is consistency! Once you find the bedtime that works best, try to make it as set in stone as possible. That way, their body will start expecting to slow down at the same time every day and sleep will come even easier.
Have a conversation
Sometimes honesty is the best policy, especially for your teenagers and older children.
Just like you have conversations about other difficult topics, it can be valuable to educate your children about the impact of screens and sleep. This includes the consequences of devices at bedtime as well as the benefits of getting a quality night’s rest — which you’re already an expert on after reading this post!
Inviting kids into the conversation can give them a sense of responsibility, making them want to follow bedtime rules, as opposed to dreading them.
Set aside screen time earlier in the days
Children often gravitate toward their devices at the end of the day. This is natural, given that their day is often filled with things like school, chores, or other activities. It can feel like the only time that’s available for them to sit back and enjoy time on their devices. Taking away this time can make them feel like they’re missing out.
By setting aside time earlier in the day, you can still give your child the opportunity to do things like check social media or play a game. But this way, it minimizes the impact on sleep.
Taking away screens at night can be a great opportunity to introduce some other healthy habits.
Here are a few ideas:
- Reading a book (physical copy versus on an e-reader)
- Taking part in light exercises like yoga or a walk
- Having a conversation with family members
- Practice meditation (for teenagers and older children)
Create a screen-free bedtime routine with Bark
Screen time and technology will continue to be a huge part of our lives, whether we like it or not. However, by setting boundaries and understanding the impact of screen time and sleep, it’s possible to build a healthier bedtime routine for your whole family.
And the best news is, you don’t have to do it alone! With Bark’s screen time functionality, you can set those screen-free bedtime boundaries (and keep them!), encouraging your children to enjoy downtime away from their devices. Bark also allows you to set content alerts and filter websites to ensure your children stay safe online. Get started with a free trial of Bark today.
Bark is a comprehensive online safety solution that empowers families to monitor content, manage screen time, and filter websites to help protect their kids online. Our mission is to give parents and guardians the tools they need to raise kids in the digital age.