We can’t just blame smartphones for kids’ poor sleep

Allowing children to have a smartphone or tablet in their bedroom could disrupt their sleep, according to a review by King’s College London and Cardiff University.

Researchers found that children and teenagers who use an electronic device within 90 minutes of going to bed are twice as likely to get insufficient sleep, and nearly three times as likely to feel tired during the day (but see our expert analysis below).

The research, published in JAMA Pediatrics, is a review of 20 existing studies, involving more than 125,000 children between the ages of six and 19.

Dr Ben Carter, the study’s lead author, said everyone should put their phones down 90 minutes before bedtime.

‘If the first thing you do in the morning is check your phone and the last thing you do at night is check your phone, that is indicative of addiction behaviour.

‘If that is the case, it is not surprising that you have poorer sleep quality. One theory is that continuous mental engagement with social media means they are always alert.

‘If you send a message an hour before you go to bed, you are still switched on when you try to sleep, in case there is a reply.

‘Our study provides further proof of the detrimental effect of media devices on both sleep duration and quality.’

A survey published last week found that 37 per cent of people in Britain felt they did not get enough sleep. Britain had the highest level of dissatisfaction with sleep compared to 12 other countries included in the survey.

Instant analysis
This was a systematic review and meta-analysis to investigate the association between portable media devices and the impact on duration and quality of sleep. Twenty studies were assessed, involving 125,198 children between the ages of six to 19. The study was informed by provisional work suggesting three quarters of children suffer from some form of sleep deprivation. Suggested exacerbating factors were increased caffeine concentration and increased use of screens prior to sleep.

The cohorts were split according to how often they had exposure to a media device: no access, less than three times a week and more than three times a week. This was linked to sleep outcomes: of poor quality sleep, frequent difficulty in sleep initiation or duration, and excessive daytime sleepiness.

Of the 20 studies identified, only two were noted as being of ‘good quality’; three were excluded for poor methods, conduct or reporting; six of the studies were of low quality and nine were deemed of ‘unclear quality’.

The focus of the analysis was mainly around bedtime usage, but there was a lot of variation in terms of assessment. One of the studies actually suggested media devices improved sleep quality. The studies differed in terms of how they assessed sleep, looking at weekends and weekdays separately.

Looking at this analysis, the data has been of a consistently haphazard and poor quality. An inference is all that can be drawn.

Current consensus suggests that media devices and screen displays are related to poor sleep pattern and circadian rhythm due to the amount of emitted blue light at inappropriate times, which can be stimulatory for people when their bodies are readying themselves for sleep. Also, the ‘constant on’ functions of sound, light, and push notifications can provide a distraction throughout the night.

However, I don’t feel this study manages to lay the blame on the mobile phone or tablet entirely. There are so many reasons for poor sleep quality: poor sleep discipline, parenting, routine, time of eating, golden time of wind-down, and so on.

Any parents considering how they can improve the quality of their children’s sleep would do well not just to ban screens but also any stimulation for about two hours prior to sleep.
RM
Research score: 1/5