Screen Time for Babies and Toddlers: How Electronics Affect Sleep
What if I were to tell you that young children who play with touchscreens — from cell phones to tablets — have been found to get less sleep? Given that tablets and smartphones have worked their way into many children's bedtime routines these days, this notion should be enough to pique your interest.
In a study conducted in the UK, parents of 715 children under the age of three were interviewed regarding their children's daily touchscreen use. The researchers found that 92 percent of the two-year-olds and 75 percent of the toddlers in question used touchscreens on a daily basis.
Additionally, a full 51 percent of infants involved in the study were reported to be daily users as well. That's literally half of all infants who, given their young age, were presumably still in diapers and not yet able feed, bathe, walk or talk for themselves, yet whose parents reported that they interacted with a smartphone or tablet on a daily basis. These results alone certainly reinforce the sheer reach of technology across the globe and into the sleep routines of all ages, including the youngest members of our families.
With this information, two questions arise: 1) What does this mean? 2) What should we be doing about technology's perceived “invasion" of early childhood?
In the UK study, researchers focused their attention on one particular implication by asking the question: how does the amount of touchscreen use impact sleep? They found that the more time children spent playing with touchscreens, the less they slept at night and the more they slept during the day.
The cumulative effect overall was that sleep decreased about 15 minutes per day for every hour of touchscreen use. While that may not seem like a large amount in the context of the 10-12 hours per night recommended for young children, “every minute matters in young development because of the benefits of sleep."
Of course, this is just one study and not something to lose sleep over yourself. But given what we know about sleep and the key role it plays in children's healthy development, mounting evidence of technology's relationship to poor sleep habits, we should be motivated to pay closer attention to when and how we introduce our kids to technology.
There are resources you can use to implement a healthy media-use strategy for your family.
First, I recommend turning to the Family Media Use recommendations as outlined by the American Academy of Pediatrics. Here you'll find a toolkit of resources that include:
- “Kids & Tech" media use tips
- Healthy and age-specific digital media recommendations for babies, toddlers & preschoolers, as well as for school-age and adolescent children
- The opportunity to create your own personalized Family Media Use Plan
Also, take advantage of the direct access to insights and resources available to you at Harvard's Center on Media and Child Health. Run by friend/pediatric colleague, Dr. Michael Rich, not only will you find useful information and expert advice focused on nurturing children's health and development in media-rich environments, but you can also find answers to your media-specific questions using Dr. Rich's “ Ask the Mediatrician."
Nowadays, even technology can help you with monitoring how often you use it. Download the screen time app for your phone — this can help track your own use of technology, so you can set a good example for your little ones.
It's my hope that you and your children will be able to rest a bit easier, simply by taking advantage of the insights and resources readily available to ensure that media plays a healthier and more intentional role in our families' lives.