By Jennifer Nelson
Deb McAlister-Holland’s 12-year-old grandson Kameron was having trouble sleeping and was racking up quite a few tardies in school. Holland suggested his electronics were to blame—Kameron regularly listened to music or audio books and used an iPod, cellphone and a tablet at night. “I told him if he could prove me wrong, I’d back off and let him keep using his electronics after lights out and if he couldn’t, then I was taking the electronics into another room at lights out.”
Kameron accepted the challenge, turning it into his sixth grade science fair project, “Does Wi-Fi Affect Plants?” His project won his school’s grand prize and placed second in the North Dallas Regional Science Fair.
As Kameron discovered, Wi-Fi does negatively affect plant growth. He gave up his electronic gadgets at night and is now sleeping better.
Today’s teenagers spend between nine and 10 hours per day plugged in to devices with screens. “The nature of this technology is highly stimulating to the brain, which in and of itself creates fatigue,” said Tom Kersting, licensed psychotherapist and founder of Valley Family Counseling, LLC in Ridgewood, N.J.
However, he said, it’s the addictive nature of these devices that is impairing teens’ ability to sleep at night—something Kersting discovered during his counseling sessions with teens. “Today’s kids are so addicted to their smartphones and other devices that they literally are not going to sleep at a reasonable hour and often sleep with these gadgets. Nearly every kid I counsel tells me that they stay up until one or two o'clock in the morning every night and their parents have no idea.”
Electronic media delays the time teens go to bed and interrupts them as they try to sleep, extending the time to achieve a deep sleep.
An Australian study found that 70 percent of teenagers experience insufficient sleep every school night, with many reporting the overuse of electronic media such as the internet, video games and mobile phones as the likely culprit. “Although there are many known benefits of electronic media for young people, including opportunities for learning and socialization, previous studies suggest that excessive electronic media use could impact negatively on sleeping patterns and the quality of sleep,” said Dr. Daniel King of the University of Adelaide’s School of Psychology, lead author of the study.
Cellphones, it turns out, are one of the worst sleep-stealers for teens. “Phones should not be allowed in bedrooms. Consider giving phones a bedtime as well as your kids,” said Dr. Bridget Boyd, pediatrician at Loyola University Health System and assistant professor in the Department of Pediatrics at Loyola University Chicago Stritch School of Medicine.
At a set time each night, phones should be powered off and tucked into their chargers in a common area of the house, she said.
Other electronic interaction—video games, internet surfing and texting—induce the fight-or-flight response, putting the body in a state of stress from a high level of visual and cognitive stimulation. Sleep-wake cycles are disrupted by the blue light, and electromagnetic radiation, a byproduct of anything electronic, disrupts melatonin production.
What should parents do?
To help keep teens from staying up all night, parents can do much to help curb electronic device use after dark, including:
- Discourage electronics after 7 p.m.
- Take electronics and their chargers out of the bedroom.
- Turn off cell phones two hours before bedtime.
- Deter teens from falling asleep to music and/or TV—it’s too stimulating for the brain to achieve deep sleep.