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Tots wired, sleeping less after touchscreen use

Giving Ella or Charlie the iPad at bedtime may not be the best idea, two London universities have found.

Researchers from Birkbeck, University of London and King’s College London asked 715 parents about their babies’ and toddlers’ touchscreen usage. After analysing the data, they discovered children as young as six months were sleeping less, and taking longer to fall asleep, than their peers who didn’t use touchscreen devices as much. Each hour of touchscreen use equated with 16 minutes’ less sleep. The results were published in Scientific Reports.

Though the study didn’t control for other variables, and therefore didn’t establish that touchscreens caused less sleep, senior lecturer in early childhood education at Western Sydney University Joanne Orlando thinks it’s an important step in the right direction. “There’s a lot of uncertainty about the impact of technology on children’s learning, health, and emotional states,” she said.

Orlando, a children and technology expert, cautioned that devices themselves aren’t harmful. It’s that what?, when? and why? that matter. What is the child watching/playing, when is this occurring and – perhaps most importantly – why has the parent given the child the device? To help them sleep, or simply to keep them quiet?

To illustrate the impact of these nuances, Orlando offered that if a child is playing a highly stimulating game five minutes before bedtime, it’s obvious that might disrupt or delay the child’s sleep.

Current screen-time guidelines are unfortunately vague in this respect. They don’t, for instance, provide recommended daytime or nighttime quotas. “They put the onus on parents,” Orlando explained. “This means it’s important that people read widely and sort out what’s best for their family.”

Though Dr Drew Dawson, director of the Appleton Institute at Central Queensland University’s Adelaide campus, thinks there’s a simpler solution to this potential problem: blue light filters that dim devices’ screens. “Many tech companies have already introduced blue-depleted night mode for tablets and phones,” he stated. “This will solve the problem without the need to reduce screen time due to circadian disruption.”

Orlando isn’t convinced. The evidence on the effectiveness of this in improving sleep is, she said, “minimal”. So, for now, for well-rested kids, guideline-supported common sense must suffice.

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