Move Over, Smart Devices – Some Older Technology Is Causing Problems For Our Kids

Children born in the last decade are perhaps the first to grow up surrounded at every moment by cell phones and smart devices.

Nearly every family owns one or more smartphones or tablets, and technology advances every day to the point that these devices are attached to us – sometimes literally – every moment of the day.

While most parents know the dangers of too much screen time on these devices, a new study is reinforcing the need to be aware of an older problem that we may not be focusing on enough.

Besides computers and smart devices, child development professionals have always warned parents to monitor how much television their children watch.

Of course, we know that some of the reasons to limit television time are so that kids will remain physically active, read books, and explore the world around them.

But a study from the University of Massachusetts has uncovered some startling data that many of us may not have thought about.

Decades ago, families would typically have one television per household.  It was usually in a common area of the home and children’s programming was only minimally available.

Television was for adults — relaxing after work, watching a late-night movie — and kids were thankful to have an hour of Saturday morning cartoons.

Nowadays, families have multiple televisions, and children often have their own TV in their bedroom – and though it may be convenient for us to keep the kids occupied with “educational” programming, it may have long-term health consequences.

The study, conducted by UMass Amherst neuroscientist Rebecca Spencer and grad student Abigail Helm, was a continuation of the pair’s research into the relationship between sleep and brain function.

Spencer had previously researched the correlation between infants’ and toddlers’ naptime routines and learning and memory.

Now, they have found that when young children watch even a moderate amount of television daily, it can have a significant negative result on their sleep.

In fact, the more television young children watch per day – even educational, age-appropriate programming – the less they sleep.

A diverse group of nearly 500 preschoolers from all socio-economic backgrounds spent approximately two weeks wearing “actigraphs,” similar to adult fitness bands or smart watches that monitor sleep patterns.

Spencer found that when preschoolers watched no television at all or less than an hour a day, that they sleep nearly a half-hour longer each night than their peers who watch television.

And it doesn’t appear to matter at what time of day the child views television programming; the effect on the brain is long-lasting.

Shockingly, the researchers found during the course of the study that nearly 40 percent of children ages 3 to 5 have a television in their bedrooms.

Not only are parents becoming increasingly dependent on smart devices and television to keep kids entertained so they can work on other tasks, but Spencer found that it is extremely common for parents to put their children in bed with the television on thinking it will help them to fall asleep faster.

Not only does television time earlier in the day effect sleep, but children who actually have a television in the bedroom and watch it while going to sleep will fall asleep 30 minutes later than those without a television on – a double-whammy when combined with TV time from earlier in the day.

“Parents assumed that TV was helping their kids wind down. But it didn’t work. Those kids weren’t getting good sleep, and it wasn’t helping them fall asleep better. It’s good to have this data,” said Spencer in the UMass Amherst report.

The American Academy of Pediatrics has long warned that children ages 2 to 5 should view no more than one hour of quality educational programming a day and that parents should watch this programming alongside their child.

But Spencer and Helm found that over 50 percent of children are watching well over the recommended amount during the week.  The number jumps to 90 percent on the weekends.

So what’s the science behind television affecting sleep?

Well, it’s the same reason that doctors caution adults not to fall asleep while scrolling through their cell phones – it all has to do with “blue light.”

All electronics emit this blue light, which suppresses melatonin production in the brain.  Melatonin is the hormone that controls our wake/sleep cycles and is responsible for the depth and quality of our sleep.

While smartphones and tablets emit blue light, studies have found that it is much more concentrated in television.

Not only is blue light a culprit, but with television, there is much more “bouncing around” between scenes and commercials which produces a “flickering” effect of both light and sound that can be distracting and disrupt melatonin levels even further.

Proper quality sleep and a good sleep routine are vital to everyone’s health, but especially to children.  Sleep is required for the body to heal, muscles to repair, memories to be processed and stored, and brain chemicals to stay regulated.

Children who fall asleep to the TV or watch too much during the day can be more prone to anxiety – not being able to “shut off” for the day – and the light and noise is harder to block out the younger the child is.

The good news is, this is addressable,” says Spencer.  Unlike some potential medical or mental health issues, parents can control when and where their children watch television.

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The American Academy of Pediatrics continues to stress the importance of parents being their child’s “media mentor.”  This means that we should be teaching our children that television (as well as smart devices) are a tool that can be used for education but should not be overused.

Think of three M’s – mentor, monitor, moderation – to help your child understand that television is not something that should always be mindlessly running in the background.  This is something that most of us as adults are guilty of.

Of course, this is not just good advice for our kids.  Adults, as well, should never fall asleep with the television on or using a smart device.

The slight difference is that we are better able to process and block the distraction than a small child who is still undergoing a tremendous amount of brain development.

If we revisit what television was to families decades ago, we can see how much has changed.

Families often watched one or two programs together in the evening, and television was used to connect and educate.

Now, with so much inappropriate content and literally hundreds of channels available at all hours of the day, we must remain vigilant and stop being complacent about television.  Just because there is children’s programming available at all hours does not mean it’s a good idea.

Try it with your family and see – mentor by showing your children that television is a tool, monitor what they watch (or better yet, watch it with them and use it as a teachable moment or conversation starter), and use moderation, limiting TV time for the whole family.

You’ll sleep better and gain the added benefit of more quality time with your kids – and there’s nothing better than that!

What are your family’s television habits?  Have you noticed a correlation between your child’s TV time and their quality of sleep?  Leave us your comments.