In the past five years, it seems every child between eight and 18 has become the proud new owner of a shiny handheld digital device. At the same time, the number of children and young adults seeking help for sleep disorders is soaring. Hong Kong sleep consultant Deborah Taylor says the connection is clear.
“The digital age has made a massive negative impact on sleep,” Deborah says. “Young people are spending their evening hours looking close-range at screens which emit an intense bright light, and that’s affecting the production of the natural sleep hormone melatonin.”
When melatonin is suppressed, the body won’t calm down enough for the sleep rhythm to kick in, and the body will remain activated. “Teens will be chatting to friends on social media one minute, and the next they are lying in bed wondering why they can’t fall asleep,” says Deborah. “And it’s not just older kids; I’ve had parents telling me their toddler won’t sleep after they’ve just been read a bedtime story on a tablet.”
Other societal factors are also to blame. Many kids and teens are no longer doing enough physical activity during the day; if there’s not enough energy output, the body won’t feel tired at night. There are also more drinks and foods available which contain sugar and caffeine – a sure-fire way to keep the body alert and awake.
The Women’s and Children’s Health Network of Adelaide performed a study on ten-year-old girls to look at the difference in reaction time and mental lapses during simple tests after their sleep time had been reduced.
Researcher Dr Jacqueline Peters says the results showed significant impaired functioning, with slower reaction times and increased lapses when the kids had received less sleep. “This would indicate that children are likely to suffer academically and emotionally when sleep-deprived,” she says. “Of course, it’s not across the board, but generally, yes,” she says, kids are similarly affected.
Changing bad habits
Experts agree that any age is a good age to establish a pre-bedtime ritual – so it’s never too late to start. Introduce some digital house rules and slumber-inducing activities to optimise the chances of a good night’s sleep.
- Have your kids turn off and remove any tablets, smartphones, video games and laptops from their bedroom at least one hour before bedtime.
- Remove from the socket any chargers or other electrical devices that emit light, and invest in blackout blinds. The darker the room, the better the sleep.
- Serve dinner at least three hours before going to bed, and avoid foods with caffeine and sugar, including chocolate, fizzy drinks, fruit juice and ice cream.
- Encourage kids to take a shower, read or listen to music to wind down.
- If something is on your child’s mind, encourage them to talk about it and resolve it earlier in the day, rather than mulling it over in bed.