Screen time is always a hot topic in the parenting world - I’m sure just like us, you’ve had many conversations with other parents in baby classes and outside the school gates, or with opinionated family members on what’s ‘right’ when it comes to your little ones. No screen time, limited screen time, unlimited screen time - we’ve heard it all! But let’s be honest, we’ve definitely plonked our child in front of the television in order to tick a few things off our never-ending to-do list! 😅
And it’s not just screen time for children - how many times have you caught yourself scrolling on Instagram during the night feeds, binge-watching the latest series until the early hours, or sitting in a dark room finishing some work on your laptop?
We can’t really live in a world without screens, so we’ve called in experts at Ocushield to give us the lowdown on how screen time can impact sleep time, and what we can do to ensure we’re being savvy and safe when it comes to our family’s tech usage…
By the time babies are 3 months old, 40% are using screens regularly. This number goes up to 90% by their second year of life. However, the AAP recommends no screen time before 18 months of age. In reality, we all know that sometimes overworked and stressed-out parents need for their children to use a screen so that they could take a shower, make dinner, or just breathe! Many of us prescribe to the adage “everything in moderation”. However, technology was developed so that we easily become addicted, so that “moderation” turns quickly into “excessive”.
The research is conclusive that consistent overuse of daily screen time for babies and toddlers can lead to delays in language, social, emotional, and physical development. Babies and toddlers learn by observing, but also by interacting. Screen usage is a predominantly solitary behaviour, with little interpersonal interactions. Babies and toddlers learn best when the information presented to them is repeated and reinforced by another human being, but parents are often not engaged with the child when using technology. Therefore, excessive technology usage can lead to delays in cognitive and social/emotional development. The physical developmental delays occur due to the sedentary nature of screen usage. If using technology, there is a good chance there is no physical activity taking place simultaneously.
If, and when, parents decide to allow tech time for their babies and toddlers, it is a good idea to:
1️⃣ Choose educational content that is interactive in nature, as this will benefit the child most.
2️⃣Set time limits from the beginning so that children do not expect exorbitant amounts of screen time
3️⃣ Be a good technology role model, putting away your own technology while interacting with your child. There is a time and a place for technology usage with the very young, as long as it is brief, age-appropriate, and interactive.
We also know that nighttime screen use has a negative effect on children’s sleep, leading to problems with falling asleep, as well as staying asleep. The reason poor sleep results from screen usage at night is twofold. From a physical perspective, the blue light emitted from screens enter the eyes and tricks the brain into thinking it is daytime. As such, the brain decreases the production of Melatonin, which is the hormone we need to feel sleepy.
In children, their eyes are more sensitive to blue light and the resulting melatonin suppression is double what it is for adults. From a cognitive perspective, the positive and/or negative emotions elicited from content we are exposed to on technology will stimulate the mind, causing the brain to be in an excited state. This is exactly the opposite of what we want to happen before we go to sleep. A quiet mind leads to a quiet body, which leads to restful sleep. An active brain leads to longer sleep latency (the time it takes to fall asleep), more nighttime wake-ups, and less overall sleep. The sleep deprivation resulting from screen use at night, in turn, can further exacerbate the delays in children’s development due to the important brain and body processes that take place while sleeping.
While we sleep the body grows, muscles and cells repair, memory is consolidated, and the immune system is strengthened. It is no wonder that, particularly during the first few years of life, sleep is critical for successful development! The good news is that technology usage at night is something you have total control over, as long as you are committed to healthy sleep.
Blue light also has a negative effect on adults’ sleep, for the same reasons as babies’ and toddlers’ sleep. The brain gets overstimulated when using technology before bed, and the body’s production of melatonin is also decreased due to the blue light emitted from our devices. We also tend to lose track of time when we are using technology, which will interfere with our sleep schedule and our circadian rhythm. How many times did you say “I will go to sleep after one more episode on Netflix”, and the next thing you know you finished the whole season? This is all a recipe for disaster when it comes to improving your sleep quantity and sleep quality. With an excited brain, low levels of melatonin, and a missed bedtime, there is a very good chance that you will not have a long and peaceful night of sleep following nighttime technology usage.
For breastfeeding mothers, there is another issue to take into consideration when using technology at night. When a mom’s melatonin production decreases, there will be less melatonin in her breastmilk. Babies do not start producing melatonin until approximately 3 months of age, therefore, their sleep-wake cycles do not start to become consistent until around that time. Therefore, up until that time, their bodies’ circadian rhythm will really benefit from the melatonin in their mother’s breastmilk. This is not to say that breastfeeding moms should start taking melatonin supplements, as research as shown that the melatonin found in breastmilk is from the body’s natural secretion of the sleep hormone, not from melatonin supplements.
If this was all not enough, we also have to worry about our eye health when discussing excessive screen time. Too much screen time can lead to eye strain, dry eyes, blurred vision, and headaches, which can also lead to long-term vision issues. In the short term, these symptoms can also affect everyday life at home and at work. It can become difficult to focus, concentrate, and be productive. Besides decreasing screen time, it is helpful to schedule regular breaks from technology so that you can rest your eyes, stretch your body, breathe fresh air, and get natural sunlight. It is also helpful to use an ergonomically designed desk to avoid body aches and “tech neck”.
The last, but one of the most important recommendations, is to protect your eyes during all technology sessions by using blue light-blocking products, such as those created by Ocushield. In an “ideal world,” we will keep our screen time usage at moderate levels, and we will turn off all technology at least one hour before bed. However, sometimes our reality collides with idealism. When this happens, using either blue light-blocking screen protectors or glasses is a good start to protecting your eyes and your sleep.
Thanks so much to Ocusheild and Whitney Roban (PhD; Solve Our Sleep) on this super-helpful and informative blog post!
Love, Team Mamamade