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Does display screen time trigger sleep issues in kids?

January 27, 2024
Homeschooling Blogs

Surveys and experiments point to the same conclusion: Screen time can cause sleep problems for children. But how widespread is the problem? How early in life are kids affected? And what can we do to prevent sleep loss? Read more about what puts some children at special risk, and the steps you can take to minimize sleep disruption.

From North America to Europe to East Asia, studies reveal that anywhere from 68 to 95% of children — including toddlers under the age of 3 — use electronic screens on a daily basis (Carson and Janssen 2012; Duch et al 2013; Jago et al 2013; Brindova et al 2015; Goh et al 2016).

Moreover, surveys confirm that many kids are using electronic screens in the hour leading up to bedtime (Brambilla et al 2017; Dube et al 2017; Hysing et al 2015; Grandisar et al 2013). Some adolescents are even using these devices after bedtime (e.g., Gamble et al 2014; Power et al 2017).

Does this put kids at risk for sleep trouble? It appears so. Indeed, in countries throughout the world, children’s use of electronic media has been linked with a variety of sleep problems, including delayed sleep onset, shorter sleep times, and daytime drowsiness (Lund et al 2021).

How serious are these problems?

We can get a feeling for the average impact of screen use on sleep by looking at differences across large numbers of children.

For example, in a study of more than 50,000 kids, Andrew Przybylski (2019) sorted children into two groups:

  • kids who were reportedly meeting recommendations of the American Academy of Pediatrics (e.g., no more than 1 hour of daily screen time for children over the age of two years), and
  • kids who were experiencing screen time in excess of those recommendations.

How did the groups compare? On average, children meeting recommendations were getting about 28 more minutes of sleep each day.

So that’s one way to think about the effects of screen time on sleep. But it may not be very helpful in trying to assess the impact that screens are having in your own family.

As we’ll see below, the effects of screen time may vary quite a bit from one individual to the next. They may also depend on the timing of exposure (e.g., during the day, versus around bedtime or after “lights out”). They may even depend on the type of device and the type of content consumed.

The bottom line? There isn’t a “one size fits all” way to assess the risks. Some kids may experience relatively little trouble. Other kids may suffer much bigger effects.

How early in life do these screen-related sleep problems emerge?

As I note below, it’s possible that electronic media use is impacting the sleep of babies and toddlers. For instance, in correlational studies, children as young as 6 months of age were at higher risk for shorter sleep duration at night (Cheung et al 2017; Chen et al 2019; Diler and Başkale 2022).

Why might screen time cause sleep problems in children?

There are actually several reasons, and not all of them affect all children to the same degree. Let’s dig deeper, to give you a better idea of what might be especially problematic for your child.

Artificial light can have a powerful, sleep-disrupting effect — especially on younger kids.

Exposure to bright light before bedtime can delay the brain’s production of melatonin, the hormone that helps usher in drowsiness. So — to the degree that we let kids use digital media devices in artificially-illuminated rooms at night — we are probably undermining their ability to become drowsy.

But even we keep the lights off, electronic media devices might still interfere with children’s sleep. Here are the key findings of recent experiments.

1. The effects of light on sleep patterns can vary a lot from individual to individual.

For instance, in one study, a highly sensitive adult experienced 50% melatonin suppression when exposed to just 10 lux of nighttime illumination. At the other extreme, one of the study participants didn’t suffer this level of melatonin suppression until he was exposed to approximately 400 lux (Phillips et al 2019).

2. Blue light — wavelengths in the range of 460-480nm — may be particularly disruptive.

Specialized cells in our retinas are tuned to respond maximally to blue light. They send a message to the brain: Wake up, be alert. It’s daytime.

In experiments, the effects have rivalled those of caffeine. For example, drivers could operate cars more safely in the middle of the night when their vehicles were illuminated with blue light at levels as low as 20 lux (Taillard et al 2012; Beaven and Ekström 2013).

That’s potentially useful for people who work night shifts. But it’s also concerning for young children who watch videos, play video games, or use mobile phones. Because electronic screens emit blue light, and research indicates that blue light affects children as well as adults (Lee et al 2018).

3. Younger individuals are especially sensitive to the effects of bright light, regardless of it’s color.

For instance, exposed to the same levels of blue light, younger individuals tend to experience more sleep disruption (Gabel et al 2017). And in a study testing the effects of white light on 9-year-old children and their parents, researchers uncovered a dramatic contrast in melatonin suppression (Higuchi et al 2014).

In that “white light” study, families were monitored as they enjoyed a normal evening at home, with lighting in the range of 122 lux (comparable to the lighting you might encounter in an elevator). The illumination was enough to suppress melatonin in children and parents alike. But the effect was much larger among the kids, whose levels were dampened by more than 50% (Higuchi et al 2014).

Commenting on this study, Monique LeBourgeois and her colleagues note “the magnitude of melatonin suppression in children was almost twice that of adults” (LeBourgeois et al 2017). 

And when LeBourgeois’s lab performed a controlled experiment of their own — this time, on preschoolers — they confirmed that young children can show great sensitivity to increases in evening illumination.

After getting preschoolers accustomed to very dim light (1.5 lux), the researchers turned up the brightness, and they discovered that even modest increases to 5 or 10 lux would suppress a child’s melatonin production by more than 75% (Hartstein et al 2022). Moreover, the effect was long-lasting, with most kids still experiencing melatonin suppression 50 minutes after the lights were turned off (Harstein et al 2022).

4. Although more research is needed, studies hint that young children might experience some sleep difficulties as a result of using blue-light emitting devices — even in an otherwise dimly-lit room.

young child under covers with teddy bear, holding electronic media device

Now it’s worth point out: In the experiments mentioned above, light exposure came in the form of people hanging out in an illuminated room. The experiments didn’t test the effects of using a tablet, mobile phone, or television in a dark or nearly dark room. So what can we conclude about that?

Although I haven’t yet seen any relevant research about children, there have been several experimental studies on adults.

For instance, in a small study of 9 adults, each participant was tested under two, different conditions (which took place on different nights). On one night, the adults read a print book before going to sleep. On another night, they used an electronic tablet instead.

The illumination level of the bedroom was dim and identical in both conditions. But when people used tablets, they were also exposed to the extra light emitted from those devices. And that appeared to make a difference.

Under conditions of tablet use, melatonin production — as well as the onset of sleep — was delayed, on average, by approximately 30 minutes (Chinoy et al 2018).

Other studies have reported only minor effects, and there is reason to think that the light-related impact of nighttime tablet use may be negligible for adults who expose themselves to sufficient levels of bright light during the daytime (e.g., Rångtell et al 2016).

However, given the evidence that young children show a heightened sensitivity to the effects of artificial lighting at night, it seems prudent to assume that the light emitted by digital devices at nighttime could play a role in delaying children’s sleep — even in rooms that are otherwise dimly lit.

And of course that’s only one problem with using electronic devices at bedtime. What about the content of electronic media?

Violent or scary media content is a common trigger of sleep-related problems, including bedtime resistance and nightmares

When Michelle Garrison and her colleagues tracked more than 600 preschoolers, they found a clear link between electronic media use and sleep problems in children:

The more time preschoolers spent using electronic media in the evening, the greater their chances of having trouble falling asleep. Kids were also more likely to have nightmares, and to experience daytime tiredness (Garrison et al 2011).

Could this link be explained by reverse causation? Maybe preschoolers suffering from sleep troubles — including nightmares — are more likely to develop bedtime rituals that include nighttime media use. Their parents might be trying to soothe them to sleep with television.

That’s possible. But it’s interesting to note that researchers were able to reduce sleep problems in preschoolers by changing the content of the media that children consumed.

Garrison and Dimitri Christakis randomly assigned hundreds of parents to replace their children’s usual, violent TV content with nonviolent alternatives (like episodes of Sesame Street).

Six months later, these kids were less likely than preschoolers in a control group to suffer from any sleep problems (Garrison and Christakis 2012).  

Such results shouldn’t surprise us, even if we’ve forgotten what it’s like to be a child. In a study by Jan Van den Bulck and his colleagues (2016), adults who watched violent media content before bedtime were 13 times more likely to report having violent dreams afterward!

It’s also important to remember that disturbing content is in the eye of the beholder. Something that doesn’t strike you as frightening or particularly violent may bother your child.

And kids don’t have to be actively watching in order to suffer ill effects. Research suggests that passive television exposure can contribute to sleep problems in children — as when a 5-year-old overhears a distressing story on the evening news (Paavonen et al 2006).

Last (but not least!) electronic media can cause trouble because they suck children in

One classic example is the way that phones can contribute to lengthy night wakings. In two U.S. studies, almost 20% of teens said their technology habits awaken them during the night — either because their phone rings (Grandisar et al 2014) or because they feel compelled to check their social media accounts (Power et al 2017).

But of course screen time can also delay one’s ability to fall asleep in the first place. For instance, research suggests that kids are more likely to stay up late playing a video game when it possess the quality of “flow” — the experience of being sucked in, unaware of the external world (Smith et al 2017).

So what outcomes are researchers observing in the real world?

Lisbeth Lund and her colleagues recently conducted a systematic review of research on media use and sleep in children (ages 0 to 15 years). They identified 49 of the best quality studies available, and found  “consistent evidence that media use was associated with short sleep duration.” In addition, for preschoolers, television watching and tablet use wasn’t just linked with shorter total sleep time, but also with difficulty falling asleep and increased daytime napping (Lund et al 2021).

In addition, research indicates that using screens at night may heighten the risk of shortened or insufficient sleep

For example, Caitlyn Fuller and her colleagues asked the parents of more than 200 kids (aged 8-17) what the youngsters usually did before bedtime, and how long they usually slept.

Compared to kids who didn’t use devices before bedtime, kids who watched television or played video games slept, on average, 30 minutes less. Kids who used a mobile phone or computer before bedtime slept an hour less (Fuller et al 2015).

And in a larger study of more than 2,500 adolescents, researchers found big differences in sleep trouble depending on the timing of screen use. Kids who used screens 1-2 hours in the evening (before bedtime) were a bit worse off compared with kids who used screens less than one hour.

But when usage increased to more than 2 hours in the evening — or happened after bedtime — the risks increased steeply. For instance, kids who said they spent more than 2 hours using screens after “lights out” had more than 5 times the odds of suffering from sleep deprivation, insomnia, and daytime irritability (Hartley et al 2022).

Sleep problems are also more common among kids who keep electronic media devices in their bedrooms

It’s easy to imagine that easy access would lead to more sleep disruption, and research supports this idea.

For instance, in one study, investigators asked more than 2,000 older children (in the 4th through 7th grades) what time they fell asleep each night, and what time they woke up in the morning. They also asked kids about devices in their bedrooms (Falbe et al 2015).

As it turned out, both televisions and smaller electronic devices were independently associated with reduced sleep. Kids who slept near a small screen (like a tablet or mobile phone) reported sleeping an average of 21 minutes less than did kids who never slept near such a device. Kids with televisions in their bedrooms slept an average of 18 minutes less than kids without a bedroom TV.  

And for kids with multiple devices, the risk was additive. Children with both a television and one or more hand-held media devices in the bedroom averaged about 40 minutes less sleep than did kids without any tech in their rooms.

What can we conclude about causation?

Whenever we talk about correlations, we have to remember: Correlations don’t prove causation. Sleep difficulties could be the cause of electronic media use as well as the effect. Some kids may use electronic screens more because they are night owls, and have more time at night to use media. Other kids may seek out electronic media to help them fall asleep.

(For more about these possibilities — and how they apply to individuals at different developmental stages, see this Parenting Science article.)

So we shouldn’t jump to the conclusion that electronic screens are to blame for every problem, or that every individual is similarly affected by exposure to electronic media.

Nevertheless, there is compelling experimental evidence regarding the disruptive effects of artificial lighting at night. And the experimental intervention on preschooler media use confirms the idea that violent content matters. Replace it with friendly, reassuring content, and kids sleep better.

Overall? I think it makes sense to assume that electronic media can contribute to sleep problems. The trick is to figure out which factor(s) are especially important to your child’s well-being, and make the necessary adjustments. Here are some tips.

Preventing sleep problems in children:  Evidence-based tips

1. Protect kids from violent or troubling media content — both before bedtime, and during the day.

It’s common sense to avoid potentially threatening content in the hours leading up to bedtime. But don’t forget that daytime matters too.  In the preschool studies, violent media content interfered with sleep even when children had viewed this content during the daytime only.

2. If you suspect screen use is robbing your child of sleep, consider an electronic “black out” period for at least an hour before bedtime.

It’s actually unclear if an hour is enough, especially for young children. But most studies looking for links with sleep trouble have focused on this time interval, and found that it made a difference.

3. If you won’t (or can’t) stop using devices before bedtime, crank down the light intensity, and get a blue light filter.

A blackout rule can be hard to follow — especially if you have a child who needs to do homework on a computer.

But whether you’re concerned about a mobile phone, tablet, or PC, it’s a good idea to turn down the intensity of the illumination. That will help. And you might reduce the risk of disruption a bit further if you use a blue light filter.

Some filters are applications that reset the color spectrum emitted by your screen. But there are also physical films that you can place on top of a screen. Unfortunately, there is no certification to ensure that a commercial filter is effective, so your best bet is to try one out and see how it makes you feel. 

What evidence exists in favor of using blue light filters? Surprisingly, there isn’t enough research to decide the question, not even for adults (Singh et al 2023). But in one experiment, volunteers who wore blue light shield eyewear for two hours before bedtime experienced higher melatonin secretion, greater drowsiness, shorter delays when trying to fall asleep (Ayaki et al 2016).

4. Expose your child to bright light in the morning.

Studies indicate that bright light experienced in the morning — shortly after awakening — has an especially potent effect on maintaining our circadian rhythms. So while it’s important to avoid exposing your child to bright light at night, don’t ignore the power of sunlight!

More tips for handling sleep problems in children

For more evidence-based information about improving your child’s sleep, see this Parenting Science guide to solving sleep problems in children.

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image of girl holding up phone while lying in bed by Mladen Zivkovic / shutterstock

Image of boy with teddy bear and blue light emitting device by Elena KHarchenko / istock

content last modified 1/2024. Portions of the text derive from earlier versions of the same article, written by the same author.

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