Why Screens and Sleep Don’t Mix

Forget the blue light that's emitted — a surprising array of other factors are at play

The average American now owns four digital devices — a smartphone, a tablet, a laptop or a desktop, and a TV. We spend more than 60 hours a week consuming information or entertainment on these devices, and most households have three TVs or more.

And get this: Seventeen percent of parents say they allow their children four years old and younger to have a television in their room.

Electronic devices may not be what causes the poor sleep.

All this connectedness is ruining our sleep. Studies have found that in controlled environments, the blue light on computer screens can disrupt our circadian rhythms, which determine our sleep cycles. Other studies have shown that just having an electronic device in the room can mean restless sleep.

Researchers at King’s College in London looked at 467 studies of school-age children between ages six and 19. They found “bedtime access to and use of a media device were significantly associated with the following: inadequate sleep quantity, poor sleep quality, and excessive daytime sleepiness.”

Even when the devices are turned off, they can make you toss and turn.

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Correlation between electronic devices and poor sleep is not the same as causation, said Dr. Jamie M. Zeitzer, professor at the Center for Sleep Sciences and Medicine at Stanford University. “The study was very limited in the conclusions it could draw,” Zeitzer told LifeZette.

Related: Surprising Sleep Secrets

Although the electronic devices may be connected to poor sleep, they may not be what causes the poor sleep.

[lz_bulleted_list title=”Insomnia in the U.S.” source=””]Women more likely to be affected|67% of people who report poor sleep also report poor health|People who make $20,000 or less report poor sleep more often than others|Average American gets 7 hours and 36 minutes of sleep a night, from 10:55 p.m. to 6:38 a.m. on workdays|Nearly a quarter of women report they felt well-rested none of the last seven days, compared to 16 percent of men[/lz_bulleted_list]

“The exposure we get to normal light during the day minimizes the impact of light on alertness and circadian rhythms at night,” he said.

Zeitzer believes the connection between screen time and sleep disruption has more to do with “the content or activity being conducted rather than the light being emitted from the device.” Teens who use social media right before bed might be reminded of stressful interactions with friends. Children who watch cartoons before bed might be scared of the villains in the stories. But a nighttime ban on electronics might not always be the right approach either.

“The problem is that not all activity impacts people the same,” Zeitzer said. “For example, for some, checking email at night is relaxing (‘now I know that I am up to date with all my tasks’). For others, it is stressful (‘look at all the things I still need to do’).”

Video games, television, and other activities can have the same effect. “A complete ban on electronics would actually negatively impact some people who use them to make falling asleep easier.”

Related: New Parents Need No Sleep, Apparently

However, when it comes to younger children, parents should lead by example by putting their phones down at night and taking time to be with their family members. But teenagers are unlikely to respond positively to a ban — especially if this is a new family rule.

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“The best thing I have seen is not to ban the use of electronics, but to convince teens of the utility of getting good sleep,” Zeitzer said.

If parents can hold an honest discussion with their teens that targets their children’s top priorities — such as sports, academics, and friends — then they can teach them that improved sleep helps them perform in each of those categories. Higher-quality sleep is associated with better memory, improved athletic performance, and a happier mood. Removing electronics from teens “often increases mistrust. It’s also ineffective.”

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